Payback of Greek Debt

Greece has something like €315 billion of public debt.

Forget about that. Instead focus on liabilities as presented in Revised Greek Default Scenario: Liabilities Shifted to German and French Taxpayers; Bluff of the Day Revisited.

The above total is a “modest” €256 billion to be paid back over time.

  1. Assume 0% interest
  2. Assume a Current Account Surplus of 3% of GDP
  3. Assume Greek Debt-to-GDP is 176%
  4. Assume Greek Debt €312 billion
  5. Assume Greek GDP is €178 billion

Point 5 is derived from points 3 and 4. The numbers seem to vary a bit depending on the source, but they should be close enough for this exercise.

Payback Math at 0% Interest

Let’s assume that Greece can run a 3% current account surplus for as long as it takes to pay back €256 billion.

3% of €178 billion is €5.35 billion. To pay back €256 billion it would take about 48 years. That assumes 0% interest and a 3% current account surplus every year for 48 years!

Those calculations ignore rising GDP. But they also ignore a huge burden on Greek citizens for 48 years.

Let’s be honest: Greece is not going to run current account surpluses of 3% per year for perpetuity.

Unrealistic Debt

Syriza says Greece Debt Repayment in Full is ‘Unrealistic’.

My math says Syriza is correct. But that math assumes debt is as stated above.

What is Greek Debt-to-GDP?

Financial Times writer Ferdinando Giugliano asks Is Greek government debt really 177% of GDP?

Economists tend to disagree over how sustainable this burden really is: some point to the sheer size of the liabilities, saying Athens will never be able to pay them back. Others emphasise the favourable conditions which the Greek government has secured on official sector loans in two rounds of restructuring: these include heavily subsidised interest rates and a lengthening of the average maturity of the debt, which now stands at 16.5 years, double Italy’s or Germany’s.

One figure on which everyone tends to agree, however, is that Greece’s public debt is 177 per cent of gross domestic product, the highest level in the eurozone. Well, everyone but a private equity group and a number of accountants, who think the relevant figure could be as low as 68 per cent.

The calculation is part of a large bet which private equity group Japonica Partners has made on Greek debt through the years. A year and a half ago, Japonica, led by former Goldman Sachs banker Paul Kazarian, offered to buy as much as €2.9bn of Greek government debt. The group has launched a campaign to prove that Greece’s liabilities are significantly more sustainable than the headline debt-to-GDP ratio suggest.

This could be easily dismissed as a private equity group talking its books. Except that it raises some interesting issues over how governments calculate their debts. The question is at the heart of a debate among the accounting community, with some thinking that the way states calculate their liabilities is out-dated and should be revamped to resemble more private sector practices.

Eurozone governments estimate their debt according to the so-called Maastricht definition”. The debt is taken at face value, meaning that a €100 liability is worth the same whether it needs to be repaid tomorrow or in 30 years time and regardless of the interest rate. Since the time-value-of-money and interest rates are ignored, Maastricht forces governments to book even a zero coupon bond at the principal amount due at maturity.

Why is this relevant to Greece? The reason is pretty simple. Eurozone governments have repeatedly agreed to lower the interest rate charged on their loans to Greece, as well as to extend their maturity. Conversely, they have insisted that the face value of the loans stayed the same. While these changes have undoubtedly made life easier for the Greek government, they do not show up in the Maastricht definition of Athens’ debt, which only considers face value.

Japonica’s estimates are based on a different system of accounting. This is the so-called International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS), the equivalent for governments of the International Finance Reporting Standards (IFRS) used by companies across the world. There are many ways in which IPSAS differs from the book-keeping rules used by governments across the EU: but for our purposes, it is worth noting that the calculation of debt moves beyond the simple face value of the liabilities, discounting it over time using market interest rates.

Wishful Thinking

I suggest it is pretty clear Greece cannot possibly pay back €256 billion even at 0% interest.

I admit I ignored potentially rising GDP. Yet, no matter how you slice it, Greece will not run current account surpluses for as long as it takes.

Moreover, government spending (debt) adds to GDP. How much is GDP supposed to rise in the absence of more government spending and more debt? For how long?

Japonica’s calculations appear to be a combination of wishful thinking and talking one’s book. Japonica also presumes patience by Greek citizens the last election proves does not exist.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock