Top German Economist: 'Restructuring Greece Within the Euro is Illusory'

Europe's finance ministers plan to approve a second bailout for Greece on Monday but Hans-Werner Sinn, the head of Ifo, a top German economic think tank, warns that the money will only help international banks -- not the Greeks. He argues that Greece can only solve its crisis if it quits the euro.

Hour-glass grafitti in Athens: "After a short thunderstorm, the sun will shine again." Zoom
AP

Hour-glass grafitti in Athens: "After a short thunderstorm, the sun will shine again."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The finance ministers of the euro zone want to approve a new bailout for Greece this Monday. Can the additional €130 billion ($172 billion) save Greece?

Sinn: No, and the politicians know it can't. They want to gain time until the next election. I think we're wasting time by doing this.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

Sinn: Because Greece's external debt is rising with every year that passes until it leaves the currency union. We're getting ever further away from solving the problem. The basic problem is that Greece isn't competitive. The cheap loans that the euro brought the country artificially raised prices and wages -- and the country has to come back down from this high level.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the euro countries shouldn't approve the aid?

Sinn: They should give them the money to ease their exit from the currency union. The Greek government could use the money to nationalize the country's banks and prevent the state from collapsing. The state and the banks must continue to function through all the turmoil that an exit will entail.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: This turmoil would hit the population hard.

Sinn: Yes, undeniably. But the turmoil would only be temporary, it would last one to two years perhaps. This time would have to be bridged with the financial aid from the international community. But the drachma will immediately depreciate and the situation will stabilize very quickly. After a short thunderstorm, the sun will shine again.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would a euro exit help Greece in concrete terms?

Sinn: It would become competitive again. Because Greek products would rapidly become cheaper, demand would be redirected from imports towards domestically produced goods. The Greeks would no longer buy their tomatoes and olive oil from Holland or Italy but from their own farmers. And tourists for whom Greece has been too expensive in recent years would return. In addition, new capital would flow into the country. The rich Greeks who deposited so many billions, possibly hundreds of billions of euros, in Switzerland would see the falling property prices and wages and would have an incentive to start investing in their own country again.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the exit from the euro zone entail Greece going bankrupt?

Sinn: No, quite the reverse. The bankruptcy forces the exit. The Greeks will immediately leave if they don't get any more international aid because the bankruptcy couldn't be managed within the euro system. The state would be insolvent and the banking system too. The entire payments system would fall apart. The chaos can only be avoided if Greece leaves and the currency depreciates immediately.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does that mean Greece should be forced to leave?

Sinn: No, no one should force anyone. But at the same time Greece doesn't have the right to receive permanent assistance from the other euro countries, and Greece's creditors aren't entitled to have the debt repaid by the international community. Everyone has to earn their standard of living themselves, and those who choose to earn money from risk must bear that risk.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If Greece were to exit the euro zone, would the tough austerity measures still be necessary?

Sinn: In this case, savings really only refer to a reduction in debt growth. The economist only refers to savings if debt is actually repaid. Greece is nowhere near doing that. But it's true that Greece has gotten used to the flow of cheap credit from abroad, and that it's politically impossible to cut wages to the extent needed to make the country competitive.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: By how much would wages have to be cut?

Sinn: Greek products must become 30 percent cheaper in order to be on a par with Turkey. You can only achieve that through a euro exit and depreciation. Without depreciation, millions of price lists and wage contracts would have to be rewritten. That would radicalize the trade unions and push the country to the brink of civil war. In addition, companies would go bankrupt because their assets would shrink while their bank debts would remain unchanged. You can only reduce the bank debt through depreciation. The plan to radically restructure Greece within the euro is illusory.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why are the euro-zone countries so adamant that Greece must remain in the currency?

Sinn: This isn't really about the country. The Greeks are being held hostage by the banks and financial institutions on Wall Street, in London and Paris who want to make sure that money keeps on flowing from government bailout packages -- not to Greece, but into their coffers.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about the contagion that a bankruptcy or a Greek exit would involve? Financial markets may speculate that other countries will suffer a similar fate as Greece.

Sinn: There may be contagion effects. But I think this argument is being instrumentalized by people who are worried about losing money. People keep on saying "the world will end if you Germans stop paying." In truth only the asset portfolios of some investors will suffer.

Interview conducted by Stefan Kaiser

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Hans-Werner Sinn
  • dapd
    President of Munich's prestigious Institute for Economic Research (ifo) since 1999, Hans-Werner Sinn, 63, is also the author of a controversial book on German budget reform, "Can Germany Be Saved?"

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