The Greek hokey cokey won’t end on Tuesday – even if it fails to pay

Earlier this week it looked as though we might see a deal on the Greek debt crisis. But now we're back to square one. John Stepek explains what's going on.


The great Greek hokey cokey just keeps on going...

The clocks are stuck at the 11th hour.

The rabbits have been stuffed back into the hats.

The highs have turned back into lows, the balls are all in someone else's court, and the headline writers are out of puns. (Acropolis Now' was used up early in the game, and no one's surpassed it since.)

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In short, there's still no deal on the table.

And so we return, once again, to the interminable saga that is the great Greek hokey cokey.

We're back to square one with Greece

Greece had given some ground on things like pensions and VAT. But its creditors have turned around and said it's not good enough.

They have a point. Greece's offer basically hinged on raising more tax, rather than significant reform or spending cuts. That's not sustainable, particularly given Greece's poor record of tax collection.

As Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) points out: "You can't build a programme just on the promise of improved tax collection, as we have heard for the past five years with very little result".

Meanwhile, Greece wants some form of debt relief, which the creditors aren't willing to discuss right now. That might be understandable, but that makes life pretty tricky for Greece's prime minister, Alexis Tsipras. He ends up looking like he's bending over backwards for the IMF, while gaining very little in concessions not something that's easy to sell to his own party.

What happens next? Tsipras is meeting European Central Bank (ECB) head Mario Draghi and Lagarde this morning. Then Europe's leaders have a meeting this afternoon.

It's probably already too late for Greece to get enough money to pay the IMF the €1.6bn it owes on the Tuesday deadline.

So is it all over bar the shouting?

Will the next step be fresh Greek elections?

The European Central Bank (ECB) can fudge its conditions on emergency assistance to the Greek banking system. It can choose whether or not to pull the plug.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) would rather avoid the embarrassment of a default, particularly because it should never have allowed itself to have its arm twisted into lending money to Greece in the first place. So it won't be a stickler for repayment timings as long as it thinks that progress is being made.

So most of these deadlines aren't hard' deadlines. Tuesday could come and go without a deal on the table and it still doesn't necessarily mean game over' for Greece.

The real problem is that there may not be an acceptable compromise solution. Tsipras came to power promising an end to reform, but without leaving the euro. As far as the rest of the eurozone is concerned, that is not an option. And even if Tsipras is now willing to compromise, his party might not be.

The Greeks really are being presented with a choice here: stay in the euro and play by our rules, or leave the euro and stick with your economy as it is.

Will either side give? It's hard to say who has the most to lose. But I'm starting to think of this as being a bit like a hostile takeover.

I suspect that the rest of Europe doesn't want to be seen as forcing' Greece to exit. I suspect that the ideal scenario for the rest of Europe would be for Greece to have another election. One that makes the choice very clear to the population: leave the euro, or stick with austerity.

If the Greeks chose to leave, their decision could be respected and the rest of the eurozone could feel secure in the knowledge that the rest of its members the good' pupils, like Portugal and Ireland have already made their choice plain. The exit process would be messy, but probably containable in that scenario.

If the Greeks choose to stay, everyone's a happy family again, and there's a basis for debt renegotiation because everyone knows that Greece will need some of its debt forgiven or written off, they just can't put that on the table until the country has agreed to co-operate.

On balance then, before this is over, I can see Greece being pushed to the point where a new election is called. Chances are, judging by history, that you'd get a more co-operative, pro-eurozone government voted in.

Of course, in the meantime, there's plenty of potential for an accidental' exit where the money runs out, capital controls are imposed, and IOUs start flying around as an alternative currency. But don't imagine that Tuesday is a final deadline, any more than any of the other deadlines have been final.

We've more on the risks and pathways to a Greek exit in the latest issue of MoneyWeek magazine, out tomorrow. If you're not already a subscriber, get your first four issues free here.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.