After weeks of turmoil in the capital markets, the European Union has provided assurances that Greece will not be allowed to default on its debt. Like AIG before it, Greece has proven to be the domino that must not be allowed to fall, lest traders next take a run at Portugal, Italy and Spain, and ultimately bring the notion of a united Europe to its knees.
But those assurances, which at root suggest that Germany has agreed -- behind closed doors -- to serve as the de facto guarantor of the debt of Greece, would come with strings attached. Greece would have to cut its massive budget deficit, reduce public sector salaries, reduce farm price supports and restructure pension commitments. In sum, to do those things that Greece had agreed to do as conditions of joining the E.U. to begin with.
And now Prime Minister George Papandreou of the Panhellenic Socialist Party has to pick up the pieces. And he is not happy.
In an odd show of gratitude for the E.U. pledge of support, Papandreou has responded by accusing the E.U. of failing to do its homework when his conservative predecessors fudged earlier deficit numbers. But the integrity of economic data is a long-standing problem for Greece, dating to audits that showed that Greece routinely dissembled in its published data and essentially lied on its E.U. application. But whatever the history, it is Papandreou who now has to carry the bad news to the electorate.
Or he can let Greece default.
Maybe it is time for someone to stand up and stare the markets down. Maybe it is time for someone to demand that in a world of open capital markets, it is investors who must evaluate risk and take risk, and if markets are to efficiently allocate capital over time, investors must be accountable for their investment decisions.
The fact is that losing money is part of the process. Markets are supposed to weigh and price risk, and in so doing allow for the efficient transfer of information. In the case of Greece, this information is supposed to be about the long-term affordability of farm price supports and public pensions and other spending, balanced against the ability to support economic growth and wealth creation over time to pay for those politically attractive expenditures.
But we are no longer in the world of markets, we are now in the world of politics. After all, when Goldman and others took AIG counterparty risk but were let off the hook and paid out billions of dollars, that was not the markets working, that was politics. And over the past year and a half, we have watched bailout after bailout for fear of markets doing what markets are supposed to do. But risk is an essential part of the process. Risk is what free markets are supposed to be about.
And it is time that a socialist stood up and said so.
Now, of course, things will not go well for the Greeks, should Papandreou choose to take this path. The Greeks will have to pay a heavy price for the failures of their representative government. But they will make the Germans happy. Because the German people want no part of this.
But at the end of the day, Europe will work it out. After all, too much is at stake. The E.U. countries staked their futures on the idea that being part of one big country is better than being a small country. France wanted a bigger platform to steer a new foreign policy freed from the hegemony of America. Poland wanted to trade in the Zloty for the Euro, as protection against having to trade it in for the Ruble. And, coming off of a century of European wars, they both wanted institutional arrangements that would harness German might.
This appears to be the path the world has chosen. For fear of "contagion" -- the notion that as Greece goes, so goes Spain, and Portugal, and perhaps Italy -- the E.U. will construct an institutional "firewall" to show that Greece will not be allowed to collapse. The only firewall standing between the E.U. and its planned "firewall" may be the German people, who are scandalized that their tax dollars will be used to fix a problem of someone else's making, and who may yet prove the last line of defense against the real contagion.
The real risk -- the real contagion -- as people from Main Street to the Bundestrasse understand intuitively, is the growing effort to take risk and accountability out of the financial system. It is the cascading issue of moral hazard. People -- like derivatives traders -- understand that risk does not go away, it just gets moved around. And they know that when the music stops, they end up paying the price.
In the U.S., the contagion is manifest in the refusal to take the steps necessary to break up the financial and political power of the largest financial institutions, to set limits on what is or is not allowable in the derivatives world, or to return risk to ownership of the financial industry. In Europe, it is the unwillingness to look at the institutional structure of the E.U. that severed currency control from national politics and fiscal policies, and made national fiscal crises all but inevitable.
For all the talk of financial reform in Washington, we are hamstrung by a system that allows affected industries with political clout to dictate policy, and in lieu of real reform we are marching down the path of more complex regulation, deluded in our fevered imagination that some team of smart regulators will ever be able to take on the political and financial power of our largest financial institutions, or match the cunning of well-incented and marginally shackled traders.
The irony is that while a socialist prime minister struggles to save his nation's pension system and safety net, his efforts may ultimately be undermined by the E.U. efforts on his behalf. The problem that the moral hazard contagion presents to Greece -- and to the rest of us -- is that only a return to robust economic growth can provide the real growth in incomes and the investment returns that will be necessary for nations or states to fund their massive future pension obligations. And each new action that we take down the path that we are now on that undermines the effective pricing of risk in the capital markets, undermines our ability to return to a functioning and growing economy.