Klaus Regling, head of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), this week drew a parallel between Greece today and postwar Germany in a speech in Aachen, Germany. Germany, he reminded the audience, had repaid the last instalment of the 1953 debt restructuring only in 2010. Successful debt restructuring was all a matter of long tenors, according to Regling.
Regling casually overlooked a few details in his speech. One, a very major debt forgiveness had been part of the 1953 debt restructuring (50% of all debt). And, two, there was the Marshall Plan which provided a key stimulus for the unfolding Wirtschaftswunder in Germany.
But still, the valid question is: Would the Greek economy experience its own Wirtschaftswunder if only a sufficient external stimulus and adequate debt relief were given? That is really the key question haunting Greece observers since 2010. Yanis Varoufakis, for one, had argued tirelessly in his blog, long before he became Finance Minister, that only a major public stimulus could get Greece out of its depression because, he said, when the situation is as depressed as it was/is in Greece, no private initiative could accomplish this goal.
One thing is certain: whenever there is an economic problem and one throws money at it, there will be an improvement. If Greece were given, as a present, say, 10 BEUR, the Greek state would spend most of that money domestically. The expenses of the state are incomes/revenues for privates. The privates, in turn, spend their new incomes/revenues and they become incomes/revenues of others. And so forth.
But here is the great uncertainty: Will that initial improvement trigger a lasting recovery or will it only turn out to have been a flash in the pan?
One can liken the situation to a large campfire. A cup of gasoline will certainly convert a flamelet into a darting flame. The question is whether that darting flame will lead to a lasting fire and lots of glow. If the campfire is built well; if there are small pieces at the bottom and the larger ones at the top; if the wood is dry; etc. --- the darting flame will likely lead to a full-fledged fire. If, on the other hand, the campfire is poorly built; if there are only few small pieces at the bottom; if the wood is wet; etc. - well, then the darting flame will soon extinguish and the situation will be worse afterwards than before because the darting flame will have burnt whatever there was left of small pieces.
There are many economic examples for both scenarios. The postwar German campfire was very well built and the Marshall Plan, actually a relatively small stimulus, provided the darting flame which turned into a lasting fire. Forty years later, the former East Germany was not a well-built campfire. The West did not throw a cup of gasoline on that campfire. Instead, the West threw (and still throws) truckloads of gasoline on that campfire (roughly 100 BEUR annually) and it still hasn't really developed its own strength.
How can one explain the difference between postwar Germany and the East Germany of the 1990s? Well, it certainly can't have been racial and/or cultural reasons: the East and the West were ethnically the same Germans. The answer must be found elsewhere.
Is the Greek economy today more akin to the postwar Germany of the 1950s or East Germany of the 1990's? One thing is certain: post-1953 Germany was a tremendous economy to invest in, both for Germans as well as foreigners (particularly Americans made huge investments in Germany). Greece, in contrast, ranks as one of the least attractive countries of the Eurozone, of the EU and of Europe in total to invest in (Doing Business Report 2018).
Statistics since 1981 show that as money flows into the Greek economy, as growth occurs, as purchasing power increases --- much of that purchasing power goes into consumption instead of investment. Since the Greek economy cannot satisfy, by far, the desires of Greek consumers, the increased purchasing power goes into imported products. All the reforms discussed/implemented since 2010 had as their declared objective to change/improve the structure of the Greek economy: more productive output and less services; more exports and less imports; more private and less public activity; etc. A distant observer cannot see that much has changed in that regard.
On the other hand, there are some positive examples. My favorite one is Cosco which I have described in many articles since 2012 as the prototype of a desirable foreign investor. Cosco proves a couple of important points to me: (a) there are investment opportunities in Greece which are of great interest to major foreign players; (b) there are major foreign players who are willing to invest even during risky times; (c) there are major foreign players who take a long-term view on Greece instead of eyeing only quick profits; and (d) when such major foreign players who take a long-term view on Greece make their investments, the results for the Greek economy can be miraculous.
Cosco had encountered a lot of criticism/objection in its early years. Reactions to my positive articles about Cosco pointed out inhumane working conditions in Chinese sweat shops. The announcement around 2013/14 that Cosco was projected to add about 1-1/2 - 2% to Greece's GDP by 2018 did not catch much attention. Today, it seems that actual results have persuaded the critics.
So is the Greek economy now akin to a well-built campfire waiting for the initial darting flame or not?
My gut feeling is that there is no major change/improvement in Greece's overall attractiveness as an economy to invest in. The truly important changes/improvement in the structure of the Greek economy have not taken place. At the same time, I believe that there could be new 'Cosco's' and the Greek government should make every effort to look for them and find them. If only there were a dozen 'Cosco's' in the Greek economy, their presence would probably do more to change/improve the structure of the Greek economy than all the Troika's, Task Forces, etc. put together.