Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Don't Cry for Greece

Argentina's experience vividly illustrates the economic damage stemming from default and departure from a hard-peg currency regime. In hindsight, the IMF has recognized that it was too optimistic about Argentina's prospects. The lesson is that postponing an unavoidable debt restructuring increases the ultimate costs, and that orderly restructuring is far preferable to the chaos of unilateral default under extreme duress (see IMF 2003).

While the Greek and Argentine episodes have in common some fiscal and monetary features, they differ importantly in their exchange rate regimes. Argentina's currency board exposed the country to balance sheet mismatches and made it vulnerable to speculative attack. More importantly, both its decision to establish a currency board in the first place and later to abandon it were unilateral. Greece's use of the euro protects it from speculative attack. Moreover, its currency regime is a result of a multilateral agreement involving continental Europe's dominant economic powers. As a member of the euro area, Greece is part of an important and influential "family." It gains a measure of protection by being under the monetary authority of the European Central Bank, one of whose primary objectives is the maintenance of stability in the euro area. As recent developments show, disorder in one country can undermine the financial stability of the whole euro area, giving member countries strong incentive to back each other up. As part of the European Monetary Union, Greece gains powerful supporters that it would lose if it were to go it alone. The magnitude of Greece's debt problem is very great and is not likely to normalize quickly. So these relationships may be tested in a few years when Greece's financial assistance package is depleted.

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