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Greek Ruins Part I - Explanation of the Greek Financial Crisis

Greece is in crisis. Recent reports have shown rioting and told of the bombing deaths of Greek bank employees. For most Americans, the reports from Greece probably come as a shock. What happened to Greece and how did they get into this situation?

Greece certainly suffered from the global economic downturn that began in 2008, but its problems began long before that. In simple terms, Greece spent too much money. Like other social democracies, much of the money went to government salaries, pensions, and welfare state programs. By some estimates, government workers account for as much as 40% of the Greek economy []. These government workers earn lavish salaries (they are paid for 14 months of work each year) and pensions. The Greek economy is also slowed by high levels of corruption, nepotism and tax evasion. Further, Greece also hosted the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. The Olympics is always an expensive, and usually money-losing, proposition for the host country.

In the past, when Greece or other countries ran up high levels of debt, they would simply print more of the national currency. This would devalue the currency, the drachma in this case, and cause inflation. The government would then pay its debts in cheaper drachmas and repeat the cycle.

This changed in 2001 when Greece joined the euro zone and adopted the euro as its national currency. The more stable euro allowed Greece to finance its spending with lower interest rates and the country ran deficits to pay for its expensive public sector workers.

It wasn’t long before Greece began to have problems. Rules for the European Union specify that member nations are not permitted to run deficits larger than 3% of GDP (gross domestic product) []. However, in 2004 it was revealed that Greece’s deficits had not been below 3% of GDP since before 1999. How did they manage to join the EU with larger deficits? They lied [].

At that point, Greek voters ousted the socialists and installed a right-wing government in an attempt to restore fiscal sanity. The new government raised taxes on alcohol and tobacco, as well as increasing the VAT (value added tax) and, for a time, the Greek economy appeared to improve [].

The next bill began to come due in 2008 with the crash of the global economy. As with most of the rest of the world, the Greek economy entered a recession. As the economy shrank, the deficit increased as a percentage of GDP. To make matters worse, the national debt had also increased by approximately 100 billion euros since 2004. The socialists returned to power in 2009 and announced sharp cuts to government spending to combat the crisis [].

It wasn’t enough. Greek bond ratings were revised downward and the Greek deficit for 2009, which had been estimated at 6%, was revealed to be as high as 13.6% as history repeated itself and Greek financial reports to the EU turned out to be less than accurate []. Greek bonds soon reached junk bond status.

The Greek government imposed an austerity package of spending cuts and higher taxes on the nation. As a result, government union workers and anarchists opposed to multinational corporations began rioting in the streets. Three bank employees were killed when their bank was firebombed by rioters.

At this point, it appears that other European nations and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will have to bail out Greece to prevent a national bankruptcy. According to the most recent reports, the EU and the IMF plan to loan Greece an additional $145 billion, of which $39 billion will be supplied by the IMF []. Some of the IMF money will be supplied by the United States.

Part of the danger of the Greek debt crisis is that it could spread to other parts of the EU and from there to the world. Other EU nations such as Spain, Portugal, and Italy also have debt crises, although not to the extent of the Greeks. Greek debt is worth approximately $400 billion and a default could cause a domino effect on banks, companies, and nations around the world []. Additionally, the crisis is already shaking investor confidence in the euro, causing its value, as well as stock markets around the world, to decline.


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