Friday, 19 February 2010

EU calls on Greek population to tighten belts to support wealthy Greek tax dodgers

Michael Burke: Tactical manoeuvring is continuing among European governments to decide exactly how much of the bill will be picked up by who for the financial debacle in Greece. The one thing they all agree is that Greek workers will not be enjoying a bailout of any kind.

Along with the lowest paid and those dependent on public services, Greek workers will bear the brunt of the 'adjustment process', through wage and welfare cuts, pension reductions, an increased retirement age and other austerity measures. The tactical squabbling is that Greece is being pressed by the European Central Bank and leading EU to go even further in the austerity measures it has already announced.At the same time the Greek PASOK government is facing mass demonstrations and strikes, which have encouraged resistance to further austerity measures.

It is noteworthy who will not be targeted. Greece has one of the lowest tax takes in the Euro Area. In the 15 years to 2006, Greek total general government revenues, as a percentage of GDP, were 37.9% compared to an average rate across the Euro Area of 45.3%.[1] This low level of taxation was, in the Greek case, the source of long-standing budget deficits which were hidden from a gullible or complicit EU (or Eurostat) inspectorate over a number of years.

Greek absence of taxation is also a long-standing burden borne by the poor in the country. The Financial Times reports that, according to the official tax returns, there are literally only a handful of Greek citizens who earn more than €1mn per annum registered for tax purposes, and that the Greek shipping magnates and the other rich are registered as 'non-domiciles' in Britain, and consequently pay tax nowhere.

Greece is not in the financial firing line because of a particularly severe recession or an especially blighted banking sector. The latest estimates from Eurostat show that Greece's GDP fell 2% in 2009, but this compares to -4% for the Euro Area and -4.1% for the EU as a whole. This is shown in Figure 1. At the same time, Greece has committed funds to its banking sector equivalent to 11.4% of GDP - far less than the 31.2% EU average (and 232% for Ireland).[2]

Figure 1

The cause of the turmoil in Greece is its high level of government debt, which existed long before the current crisis, combined with a sharply rising budget deficit. Greek government debt as a percentage of GDP has been hovering close to 100% of GDP in all years this century, and is forecast by the EU to rise to 125% of GDP. Greek bond yields were already rising, but were pushed sharply higher by the decision of the European Central Bank, in effect, to remove Greek government bonds from the list of assets it would hold at the end of this year. A reversal of that announcement alone would transform the attitude to Greek government debt, but has not been forthcoming. Likewise, a genuine transformation of the tax system in Greece, as well as rigorous clampdown on tax evasion by the wealthy, would have a dramatic impact on the deficit.

Instead, it seems as the European institutions are trying to get their act together to act as a quasi-IMF, with any support conditional on a deepening of current austerity measures. This is no more likely to be successful in Greece than it has been in Ireland’s case, where deficit projections continue to rise.

As in other countries the rise in the Greek deficit is caused by a slump in taxation receipts, which have fallen by 8.1% in 2009 and which are forecast to fall by over 10% in 2010 [3]. This hole in government finances is itself linked to plummeting levels of investment in the economy. The recession in investment began a year earlier, in 2008, and has already fallen in total by 22.5%, with further falls expected this year [4]. By contrast, the recession-related rise in government spending over the same two years has been just 3.5% [5]. This is shown in the Figure 2 below.

Figure 2

Greece has a narrow tax base, with an unusually wide range of tax-exempt activities. The tax exemptions are revealing as to whose interests are being protected. Among the tax exempt activities:

* Proceeds from the sale of shares that are traded on the Athens Stock Exchange.
* Income from ships and shipping.
* Any dividend received from a Greek company.
* Capital gain from sale of a business between family members.

As a result, any decline in taxable activity leads to a disproportionate decline in tax receipts. This appears to be the case in Greece, where the slump in investment, which is taxable through a variety of levies on goods and services, has led to the decline in aggregate tax receipts and rising public deficits.

Further, the concealment of the actual size of the public deficits appears to have gone unchecked by the EU Commission - as its own 2004 Report into false public accounting in Greece provided no more than a public admonishment, and no programme for change. The new EU investigation however shows that in the years 2000 to 2003, the public deficit was understated by 10.6% of GDP. And, in a tell-tale sign of the unreformed nature of Greek society since the 1970s, more than half of that, 5.5% of GDP, was on military spending.

There is no economic logic behind spending cuts to close the deficit. Higher spending was not the cause of the budget deficit, lower tax receipts are. Worse, since tax evasion is endemic among Greek businesses and the rich, cutting the income of the one section of society that does pay tax, the poor and salaried workers, will reduce taxation revenues further.

The austerity measures now foisted on Greece stand in sharp contrast to the reflationary measures adopted by the major countries across nearly the entire the Euro Area -a policy led by Germany. German has adopted a reflation/stimulus package amounting to 4% of GDP. Germany's measures could have been better targeted. But despite a stagnant 4th quarter of 2009, forecasts for Germany's growth and its deficit are both on an improving trend.

The question is therefore posed, why is a reflationary recipe that clearly works for 'core' Europe deemed unsuitable for Greece? Why can government investment work for Germany, France, Belgium, and so on, but is ruled out in the case of Greece?

The answer may lie elsewhere, in the countries of Eastern Europe. There a number of countries had been hoping to benefit from further EU enlargement, which now seems postponed. Prior to enlargement, the EU demanded continual reform of the Eastern European economies – including further privatisations, liberalisation of the labour markets and a reduction of social spending.

These privatisations facilitated the arrival of Western European and US telecomms, agribusiness and other firms, but above all banks and financial firms. The drive to lower wages and social spending allowed a cheapening of labour, which could be exploited by Western firms, and led to widespread emigration. The removal of local producers in turn expanded the market for Western goods.

This sounds like the package of 'reform measures' to be demanded of Greece in return for any loans. The Greek population is finding that, while all members of the EU are equal, some are more equal than others.


1.EU Commission, EcoFin, Europea Economic Forecast Autumn 2009, Statistical Annex, Table 36.

2. EU Commission, Euro Area Report, Winter 2009, Table 2.1.

3. Table 36

4. Table 9

5. Table 35

This post has been cross-posted from the Socialist Economic Bulletin.

1 comment:

Joseph said...

Probably the most honest headline I've seen on this Greek tragedy.