Debt Crisis: Greece 2011 Compared To Argentina In 2001

by: Daryl Montgomery

Headlines such as "Hopes for Greek debt progress lift world stocks" and "Wall Street opens higher on European hopes" are in the financial news today. Before investors buy into the hype, they should realize that the powers-that-be always deny an obvious and inevitable default before it takes place. Greece in 2011 is on a very similar trajectory to Argentina in 2001 and is well past the point of no return for a default just as Argentina was back then.

There are many similarities between the current Greek debt crisis and the Argentina debt crisis in 2001. Greece is not using its own currency, but a transnational one, while Argentina pegged its currency to the U.S. dollar. A connection to a greater currency allows only limited policy responses and prevents the usual money printing that would have taken place when debt becomes too high. This in turn causes a gradual rise in inflation up to the point of hyperinflation (Greece and Argentina have both experienced hyperinflation in the past). While skyrocketing interest rates in Greece are implying there is massive inflation, the official inflation rate is under 3%. Yields on one-year Greek governments reached approximately 100% on Tuesday, telling a very different story.

While the Greeks are certainly underestimating their inflation rate (they have been caught lying and continually underreporting their debt figures and no numbers from the Greek Statistical Office can be trusted), it is relatively minor no matter what the actual number. Inflation is caused by a falling currency and hyperinflation by a collapsing currency. Since the euro is not dropping that much and Greece uses the euro, inflation is not showing up there. Argentina tying its currency to the dollar also created a very low inflation rate as long as the peg lasted. There is no free lunch, however (even though you may have repeatedly heard that from politicians). Profligate government spending eventually leads to major inflation. The inflation only showed up in Argentina after it decoupled its currency from the U.S. dollar and it will show up in Greece after it decouples from the euro. Instead of gradually building inflation, sudden major inflation will take place.

The Argentina crisis began when a new government was elected in December 1999 and had to deal with years of mismanagement from the previous administration. Greece elected a new government in October 2009 and shortly thereafter it revealed that it had a lot more debt and higher budget deficits than it had claimed. In both cases, sharp spending cuts were implemented and serious riots followed. By December 2000, Argentina had acquired bailout funding from the IMF. Markets rallied and press reports indicated everything was going be OK. Greece received its first bailout from the EU and the IMF in the spring of 2010 and markets rallied and press reports indicated that everything was going to be OK.

In both cases everything that followed wasn't going OK.

By the spring of 2001, events started spiraling downward in Argentina. In the spring of 2011, events started spiraling downward in Greece. In August 2001, Argentina received an increase in its standby loan agreement from the IMF. Greece received promises of a second bailout from the EU, but with some mandatory debt swaps as part of the deal. Argentina engaged in debt swaps in June of 2001. Interest payments on Argentina's debt eventually overwhelmed rescue attempts and on December 5, 2001, the IMF announced it would not disburse promised aid to Argentina. A collapse followed shortly thereafter. The EU is now questioning whether or not to continue to make disbursements to Greece. If the disbursements stop at any point, Greece will default shortly thereafter just as Argentina did.

No government is of course going to admit that it is going to default. If it did, no one would purchase its bonds and this would cause an immediate default. It is not surprising that the Greek government is denying the obvious, EU leaders are grasping at straws to explain how a Greek default will be avoided, or that the mainstream media is trying to spin those straws into a golden fantasy of solvency. Argentina denied that it would default right up to the end as well, just like every other country (and major company) facing the same predicament has in the past. Despite the claims that, "this time is different," it never is.

Disclosure: None.