The Greek Debt Crisis In Historical Perspective

With Greece again roiling world financial markets, it can be useful to step back and get an historical perspective.  Greece has been here before, and if history is any guide this will not be the last time.

If Greece has developed something of a bailout culture, it is because there has always been a Western power with a geopolitical interest in bailing the country out.  Whether it was Britain attempting to keep Tsarist Russia in check or the United States looking to best the Soviets in the Cold War, Greece has always had a patron.  By virtue of its strategic location in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece mattered.

I’ve written favorably about geopolitical forecasting firm Stratfor and its prolific founder, George Friedman.  I wrote reviews of Friedman’s two most recent books (Book Review: The Next 100 Years and Book Review: The Next Decade) and continue to recommend both.

Today, I recommend you read Stratfor’s analysis of Greece’s debt woes, which first appeared on Stratfor.com as “Greece’s Continuing Cycle of Debt and Default“:

The ongoing financial crisis in Greece is a familiar situation for Athens. Greece has been in debt since its war for independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s, which means international creditors and foreign sponsors have played a role in Greek finances, politics and economic development since then. Even though Greece has failed to achieve the expected gains from the reforms its Western creditors have demanded it make in order to pay back its loans, foreign powers have always had a strategic need for Greece and have thus refinanced or forgiven its debts despite numerous defaults.

Indebted from the Start

The modern state of Greece was born after 11 years of fighting against the Ottoman Empire (from 1821-1832). However, it was not until Western intervention in 1827 that the conflict turned decidedly in Greece’s favor. The war had disrupted commerce in the Eastern Mediterranean, and France and the United Kingdom were concerned that a power vacuum in the region would give the Russian Empire an opportunity to expand and gain direct access to the Mediterranean. They thus sought to balance any expansion of Russian power by positioning themselves strongly in a newly independent Greek states. When Greece finally achieved its independence, it was these three Great Powers — France, the United Kingdom and Russia — that negotiated the terms of that independence.

Despite the nationalist origins of the Greek conflict, the Treaty of Constantinople — negotiated by the Great Powers in 1832 — declared the Kingdom of Greece an absolute monarchy and appointed a Bavarian prince, Otto, as monarch. Since the 17-year-old Prince Otto was a minor when he was named monarch, a council of regents consisting of three Bavarian advisers who came to be known as the “Troika” — incidentally, the same term used for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank and European Union officials today — were appointed to rule in Otto’s name. One member of the Troika was particularly instrumental in establishing the framework for the new country: former Bavarian Finance Minister Josef Ludwig von Armansperg, who ultimately was appointed prime minister of Greece when Otto assumed the throne.

During the fight against the Ottomans, Greece accumulated a large external debt — a debt on which it defaulted in 1826, greatly restricting the new country’s ability to access international credit. The United Kingdom, France and Russia agreed to loan the new country 600 million francs. As a condition of the loan, the three countries maintained diplomatic representatives in Athens who were heavily involved in the creation and oversight of the Greek government. The Great Powers wanted to see immediate returns on their loans after the new country began taking shape. However, the only immediate source of internal revenue for Greece was agriculture. Loans were given to farmers to expand cultivation on land that was nationalized after the war. The financing terms of the state loans, which required a 3 percent down payment in cash, combined with an immediate and heavy tithe on the lands’ production, forced most agriculture laborers to borrow from the few private individuals who had access to large amounts of capital — mostly the wealthy members of the Greek diaspora and the merchant class. This created a cycle of debt wherein the state’s attempts to pay off its international debt resulted in an increasingly indebted population…

Greece in Modern Times

By the end of World War II, Greece, along with its European sponsors, was in economic ruins. In March 1947, the United Kingdom had to end the financial assistance it had provided Greece in varying degrees since the 1820s. However, the Communist insurgency that engulfed Greece immediately after World War II once again presented the threat of Russia (now the Soviet Union) controlling strategic points in the Eastern Mediterranean. This made Greece strategically critical to the single remaining Western superpower: the United States, whose military and economic aid to Greece during the Cold War prevented Communist forces from gaining influence in the country. In 1981, Greece became the 10th member of the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the European Union). After this, Greece received large loans and subsidies from the European bloc in addition to aid from the United States. Nonetheless, by the early 1990s, Greece’s lack of economic growth and massive budget deficit led the IMF and European Commission to supervise the country’s finances.

A Familiar Position for Athens

Greece’s current problems — a large external debt, high defense expenditures, a political system entrenched by its ability to provide its supporters with continual patronage, a capital-poor and import-dependent economy, an ineffective tax collection system, exclusion from international credit markets and the forfeiture of its fiscal sovereignty to external creditors — are problems Greece has faced throughout its modern existence. It has been in major powers’ strategic interest to ensure Greece’s stability since its independence from the Ottoman Empire, but it seems that nearly 200 years of international interest in developing the Greek economy has not done much to change Greece’s circumstances.

Article by Stratfor.  Full article can be viewed at “Greece’s Continuing Cycle of Debt and Default.”

Some things never change, though Greece’s strategic importance to the West perhaps has.  Greece has far less value as a military, diplomatic, or trading partner than, say, neighboring Turkey.  It will be interesting to see if, for the first time in two centuries of welfare payments, the West finally cuts Greece loose.

 

Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational purposes only, as of the date hereof, and is subject to change without notice. This material may not be suitable for all investors and is not intended to be an offer, or the solicitation of any offer, to buy or sell any securities nor is it intended to be investment advice. You should speak to a financial advisor before attempting to implement any of the strategies discussed in this material. There is risk in any investment in traded securities, and all investment strategies discussed in this material have the possibility of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The author of the material or a related party will often have an interest in the securities discussed. Please see Full Disclaimer for a full disclaimer.

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