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LQD: 'Germany Was Biggest Debt Transgressor of 20th Century'

by Bernard Fri Nov 25th, 2011 at 03:17:15 AM EST

In keeping with the strong anti-German tradition we have developed on this site (just kidding: I've lived in Germany and even though my German is a bit rusty, I still understand the language somehow), let me quote something I stumbled upon in Der Spiegel.

The current euro clusterfuck debate has been often framed by the German elite as the virtuous and hard working North vs. the lazy and profligate South, starting with Frau Bundeskanzlerin herself. Not to mention the Bild tabloid (the German Daily Fail) crying: "They all want our money!"

The zeal in retrieving money in just every corner sometimes goes a little bit too far and is not always directed at Southern Europe. To wit:

flandersnews.be: German tax on former war labourers' pensions sparks indignation

The German government demands that a tax would be paid on pensions received by foreigners who were compelled to do forced labour during World War II. The news sparks indignation and preoccupation among Belgians enjoying these pensions, either former labourers or their widows.

Needless to say, this didn't go down well at all in Belgium.

Anyway, for the past years, Merkel, Schäuble, Stark: all seem to be pushing the same message: "You must pay your debt, up to the last penny, like all responsible people do".

Not so fast, say some discording voices. Here's a Munich born historian who is taking a critical look at the German government's track record in dealing with its own debt, and he's not exactly mincing his words:

front-paged by afew

Economic Historian: 'Germany Was Biggest Debt Transgressor of 20th Century' - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News - International June 21, 2011

Think Greece's current economic malaise is the worst ever experienced in Europe? Think again. Germany, economic historian Albrecht Ritschl argues in a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview, has been the worst debtor nation of the past century. He warns the country should take a more chaste approach in the euro crisis or it could face renewed demands for World War II reparations.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Ritschl, Germany is coming across like a know-it-all in the debate over aid for Greece. Berlin is intransigent and is demanding obedience from Athens. Is this attitude justified?

Ritschl: No, there is no basis for it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Most Germans would likely disagree.

Ritschl: That may be, but during the 20th century, Germany was responsible for what were the biggest national bankruptcies in recent history. It is only thanks to the United States, which sacrificed vast amounts of money after both World War I and World War II, that Germany is financially stable today and holds the status of Europe's headmaster. That fact, unfortunately, often seems to be forgotten.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: If there was a list of the worst global bankruptcies in history, where would Germany rank?

Ritschl: Germany is king when it comes to debt. Calculated based on the amount of losses compared to economic performance, Germany was the biggest debt transgressor of the 20th century.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Greece can't compare?

Ritschl: No, the country has played a minor role. It is only the contagion danger for other euro-zone countries that is the problem.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Germany of today is considered the embodiment of stability. How many times has Germany become insolvent in the past?

Ritschl: That depends on how you do the math. During the past century alone, though, at least three times. After the first default during the 1930s, the US gave Germany a "haircut" in 1953, reducing its debt problem to practically nothing. Germany has been in a very good position ever since, even as other Europeans were forced to endure the burdens of World War II and the consequences of the German occupation. Germany even had a period of non-payment in 1990.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Really? A default?

Ritschl: Yes, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl refused at the time to implement changes to the London Agreement on German External Debts of 1953. Under the terms of the agreement, in the event of a reunification, the issue of German reparations payments from World War II would be newly regulated. The only demand made was that a small remaining sum be paid, but we're talking about minimal sums here. With the exception of compensation paid out to forced laborers, Germany did not pay any reparations after 1990 -- and neither did it pay off the loans and occupation costs it pressed out of the countries it had occupied during World War II. Not to the Greeks, either.

Initially posted in today's Salon and diaried at Jerome's request.

Also, on the debt history between Germany and Greece: how Greece halved German debt back in... 1953:

Als Griechenland deutsche Schulden halbierte (23.09.2011) (h/t Migeru)

by Bernard on Wed Nov 23rd, 2011 at 04:08:30 PM EST
More from Albrecht Ritschl:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the current crisis, Greece was initially pledged €110 billion from the euro-zone and the International Monetary Fund. Now a further rescue package of similar dimensions has become necessary. How big were Germany's previous defaults?

Ritschl: Measured in each case against the economic performance of the USA, the German debt default in the 1930s alone was as significant as the costs of the 2008 financial crisis. Compared to that default, today's Greek payment problems are actually insignificant.

Depending on how it is estimated the cost of the 2008 crisis ranges from $3-4 trillion to $20 trillion.

Discussing the Dilemma in Greece Ritsch notes: "It's above all a matter of finding the paymaster."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The biggest paymaster would surely be Germany.

Ritschl: That's what it looks like, but we were also extremely reckless -- and our export industry has thrived on orders. The anti-Greek sentiment that is widespread in many German media outlets is highly dangerous. And we are sitting in a glass house: Germany's resurgence has only been possible through waiving extensive debt payments and stopping reparations to its World War II victims.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're saying that Germany should back down?

Ritschl: In the 20th century, Germany started two world wars, the second of which was conducted as a war of annihilation and extermination, and subsequently its enemies waived its reparations payments completely or to a considerable extent. No one in Greece has forgotten that Germany owes its economic prosperity to the grace of other nations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you mean by that?

Ritschl: The Greeks are very well aware of the antagonistic articles in the German media. If the mood in the country turns, old claims for reparations could be raised, from other European nations as well. And if Germany ever had to honor them, we would all be taken the cleaners. Compared with that, we can be grateful that Greece is being indulgently reorganized at our expense. If we follow public opinion here with its cheap propaganda and not wanting to pay, then eventually the old bills will be presented again.

Albrecht Ritschl is a forthright and courageous man. Were I he, I would think twice about visiting Germany in the near future. This seems certain to provoke a furor.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Nov 23rd, 2011 at 11:33:57 PM EST
Note that this was published in June already, and on the same day in English and German. (I now recall I have thought of diarying it over the weekend then but had no time and forgot...) IIRC the issue has been mentioned in taz and Süddeutsche and TV shows around the same time, too, but it seems to have made no lasting impact on public discussion.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Nov 24th, 2011 at 04:39:44 AM EST
This is a symptom of the decadence of capitalism : the insistence that money, in and of itself, is the supreme value, and that good bookkeeping is the road to Nirvana.

This world-view ignores the frequent and massive episodes of debt forgiveness which have occurred at decisive moments.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Nov 24th, 2011 at 07:59:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But Germany insisted on lenders suffering a partial loss against resistance of other EU members and the ECB. Germany just insists that as far as debts are paid they be paid by the debtors.
by oliver on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 11:06:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Germany is also insisting on not allowing the ECB to function as a central bank.

My sympathy is distinctly limited.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 12:01:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not only has 'Schland been on the receiving end of a "Transfer Union" several times, but has also established the precedent internally. And not just the transfer from West to East. In the 50's and 60's, the hard working North subsidized the agrarian South so that Bayern could enter the digital age. (Tongue only partially in cheek.)

Until 'Schland wraps its hard little head around this "Transfer Union" concept, we ain't goin' nowhere.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anaïs Nin

by Crazy Horse on Fri Nov 25th, 2011 at 04:30:43 AM EST
Germany financed cohesion funds for decades. So Germany has a limited willingness to pay. Do you really expect a country to risk going broke for the European project assuming unlimited liability?
by oliver on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 11:09:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I guarantee you that Germany will go broke if it breaks the euro.

This isn't a zero sum game. The reason Germany financed cohesion funds was so it would have markets to sell its goods to. Positive sum game: everyone wins.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 11:13:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But if you break a positive sum game you get a negative sum outcome.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 11:38:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I prefer to say 'But And if you break a positive sum game you get a negative sum outcome.' which is the reason for a reasonable government to help solve this problem. In the way Merkel has ruled the only beneficiaries are in the financial sector, and the most sufferance is born by people who had no hands in creating the problem.

res humà m'és aliè
by Antoni Jaume on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 12:58:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Merkel was certainly not the origin of the neo-liberal infestation of the EU and the European banks, but she does go along with much of the worst of the doctrine. This is probably because she sees them as constituents and thinks she is helping them. I do give her credit for pushing for writedowns, at least in some fashion.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 02:04:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Welcome to ET, Oliver.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 11:47:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Germany financed cohesion funds for decades.

That's not a bug, that's a feature. Germany has a higher per capita GDP than the recipients of those funds.

So Germany has a limited willingness to pay.

As the country with the largest internal current accounts surplus, Germany is the country that has to defend the currency union. If Germany does not want to defend the currency union, then Germany does not want a currency union. If Germany does not like being the country that has to pay to defend the currency union, Germany is free to end its mercantilist attack on its trading partners and allow German wages to rise to the level where the German foreign accounts balance.

Do you really expect a country to risk going broke for the European project assuming unlimited liability?

As the country with the largest internal current accounts surplus in the Eurozone, Germany cannot go broke from any conceivable solution to the Eurocrisis. So that question is totally irrelevant.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 12:08:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah...people tend to forget history...shame...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Fri Nov 25th, 2011 at 05:05:30 AM EST
probably not a good one.

Rebuild the Berlin Wall and try over again.

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.

by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Fri Nov 25th, 2011 at 06:23:49 AM EST
Germany is the real winner in a transfer union - FT.com

Start with a simple point about exchange rates. Since 2009, stable open economies from Brazil to Switzerland have seen hot inflows of money and upward pressure on their currencies. If Germany had not been tethered to the euro, its money would have behaved like the Swiss franc, spoiling the recent party in its manufacturing heartland. Between August 2009 and May 2011, German exports jumped by 18 per cent. A reasonable estimate suggests they would have risen only 10 per cent if Germany had been outside the euro.

Conversely, if peripheral Europe had not been tethered to the euro, its currencies would have fallen over the same period. Rather than facing a financial shock and a crisis of competitiveness, they would have faced the first without the second. Of course, the currency union that makes adjustment in the periphery so excruciating is the very same currency union that handed Germany its export boom. Rather than condemning lazy southerners, the Germans should share the loot.

Germany has benefited more than it acknowledges through the monetary channel, too. During the euro's first decade, interest rates across the eurozone fell towards German ones, and low-saving southern countries appeared to derive a subsidy from the credit rating of high-saving northern ones. But, far from being a boon to the periphery, centralised monetary policy proved appropriate for the EU's mature core, but too loose for inflation-prone catch-up economies. By an irony that inflation-hating Germans have trouble seeing, Ireland and Spain suffered property and banking busts at least partly because monetary policy was too German. Rather than scorn the losers, Germany should compensate them.

(Google link)

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Nov 25th, 2011 at 11:50:07 AM EST
Good points however I'm consistently pissed at the standard misrepresentation:
You can see whence this myth comes: the Greeks do retire in their fifties; they did lie about their budget deficit; and it is galling when they demand serial bailouts

So let me repeat: Greeks did not retire in their 50s (fig. 15 Gr=EL) and they never demanded a bailout.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake

by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Fri Nov 25th, 2011 at 01:50:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I noticed that and it irked me too, but I thought it was worth posting for the rest of the article.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Nov 25th, 2011 at 02:10:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No problem with the rest of the piece, but it annoys me to no end that these sort of falsities have aquired status of received wisdom, of undisputable fact.

About the "lies": The Simitis government as well "lied" about the real numbers to join the Euro (and what a great idea that turned out to be....). In fact they were simply copying "creative accounting" tricks well established in Italy. Everybody in the EU knew at the time that this was nonsense, a cursory investigation would have shown it... yet nobody did anything about it.
BTW guess who was Governor of the Bank of Greece (and thus either complicit in playing with the numbers, or a fool) at precisely that time? Loukas Papademos, current PM and Merkozy / troika favorite...

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake

by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Fri Nov 25th, 2011 at 06:54:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Off the books financial instruments are not new. In this case, currency swaps of the sort conducted with Goldman swaps. Nor were they hidden, they were announced everywhere and indeed Eurostat noted that a change needed to be made so that they could be accounted as debt. The change was made. Two years after Greece entered.

Germany conducted the same sort swaps in some sectors.

Even today you see funky accounting in all these countries.

by Upstate NY on Sat Nov 26th, 2011 at 10:25:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And "they" didn't lie, the last conservative government did; and how is it galling to call for bailouts in case of emergency.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Nov 25th, 2011 at 02:33:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the whole lie story is a canard to the extent it lets the banks and other politicians off the hook.

"They were lying! We would have never loaned them money!!"

Yes, the conservative gov't lied--but we're talking about projections of a yearly budget deficit here during a time of severe economic downturn. Even current Greek projections have been off by a magnitude of 4% yearly budget deficit. And indeed, Greek projections were off for every single year of the decade before being audited and reported correctly at the end of the year.

If you look at Greece's debt to GDP throughout the decade, you don't see it rising because of lying. It was 100-105% throughout the decade and then ended up at 115% after 2008.

by Upstate NY on Sat Nov 26th, 2011 at 10:28:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm all with you in blaming banks and not forgetting that the GDP ratio depends on the GDP estimate too, but the mis-reporting of Greece's deficits wasn't in projections and wasn't just in percent-of-GDPs. You may recall the November 2010 revisions. However, those were preceded by more significant revisions, which accounted for a combination of creative booking (in which Goldman Sachs advised the government) and bad tracking of data. Check this EU report for a summary. The corrections were significant in Euros, too, see for example tables on page 19 in the report, which show both the nominal and percentage value of the corrections done in 2009. For the last full year of the Karamanlis government, 2008, the deficit increased to the tune of €6 billion, most of it being hospital liabilities.

You are also wrong about the debt ratio not changing due to the revisions. Check pages 13-14 of that report for the changes in the debt ratio from 2000 to 2008. Upward revisions are due to mis-estimates, though apparently mostly ones different from those behind the deficit mis-estimates. However, the most significant change in the debt ratios is a ~10 pp downward revision done in 2007 (the report doesn't say but this one is associated with the inclusion of the black economy in the GDP estimate, I found).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Nov 26th, 2011 at 01:40:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Goldman Sachs swaps were way back in 2002. Unless you're referring to something else.

I actually read the Eurostat report on this issue that broke down the bad numbers and the exact audit procedures that produced the validated numbers.

The main point stands however. If Greece had been lying all along, one struggles to understand how 105% debt to GDP rose to ONLY 115% in early 2010.

If they were lying, then the published Eurostat figures showing 100-105% through the decade were wrong, correct? But if they were wrong, how does the Greek debt rise to ONLY 115% with a 15% yearly deficit in 2009? It makes no sense.

I have no doubt the Greek ministries were botching their numbers all along, but Eurostat claims it was conducting audits, and yet even if it wasn't getting to the bottom of things, even if Eurostat was throwing up its hands, it wouldn't explain why/how banks were lending to Greece when the published figures clearly showed 105% debt to GDP for a decade.

by Upstate NY on Sat Nov 26th, 2011 at 09:54:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Goldman Sachs: I should have checked rather than relying on memory; indeed the main deal with Goldman Sachs was in the years 2001-2005 and a heritage of the Simitis government. I conflated it with GS's 2009 attempt to advise the Greek government again, this time the freshly elected Papandreu government, but they didn't listen. (I find though in the article that in 2008, GS advised the Karamanlis government in another legal trickery regarding the swaps from 2001.)

If they were lying, then the published Eurostat figures showing 100-105% through the decade were wrong, correct?

Have you checked the link again? Yes, the debt figures were wrong and they were revised.

how does the Greek debt rise to ONLY 115% with a 15% yearly deficit in 2009?

You are confusing 2008 and 2009, and your data seems not up to date. In Eurostat's current data, the lowest debt to GDP ratio was in 2003 (when GDP grew 5.9%) at 97.4%, which grew to 113.0% in 2008 (GDP: -0.2%, start of recession). Then in 2009 (GDP: -3.3%), it jumped to 129.3%.

As I indicated, it seems true however that total debt and deficit are derived from different estimates (thus the deficit-hiding doesn't directly appear in the debt and the debt-hiding doesn't directly appear in the deficit). It's hard to check up on this, because change in debt should also be affected by exchange rate effects and other financial niceties (and possibly a host of other factors I'm ignorant about), but here is another series I derived from Eurostat data -- deficit vs. change in debt, both in million Euros:

Change in debt18636108987345881115132122642878315096238313640629814

Some years the deficit exceeds the debt increase, but you see that overall, in the past decade, debt was actually growing by more than the cumulative deficit. The "interesting" years are 2000, 2001, 2006, and 2010.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 03:26:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It appears 2009 was revised much later, so it's hard for me to go back, but I'm sure if you look at 2009 numbers from 2010, the troika and everyone was working under the assumption that the debt to GDP was 115%.

But as I wrote in my initial post, Greece got the numbers wrong each and every year. Yet Eurostat conducted audits and eventually reported a number that would accord with the 115% debt to GDP.

The economy fell off the wheels in late 2009.

by Upstate NY on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 09:05:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Could you give sources for your contention? For now my impression is that you either mis-remember or remember data from a period of time when 2009 deficit estimates were already out (they were estimated in advance in 2009 already after all) but debt totals circulating in the media were the last official data, that is end of 2008. And either way, you are trying to make a point based on a hazy memory while disregarding actual data and sources I quoted showing actual corrections in debt ratios.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 09:19:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Look at this link:


In November of 2010, the numbers for Greece were revised to the current number that you have.

Yet Greece's bailout plan had already been instituted for many months prior to that on the assumption that Greece's debt to GDP was 115%. The "Greeks were lying" story was also out based on the idea that their debt to GDP was at 115%. Indeed, in the Eurostate report of January 8, 2010 which went into excruciating detail on Greek statistics, and how screwed up they were, the numbers had been revised up to 115%.

The yearly budget deficit at the time was considered to be in the 11% range.

It was only AFTER the degree of recession (+5%) was determined in combination with the revised budget deficit (+15%) in late 2010, that the debt to GDP number was revised to 127%.

The "Greece lied about statistics" story came out long before that when the depth of the recession in Greece and the budget deficit was not fully known. I would submit however that these numbers are all moving targets and what needs to be known is the actual GDP rises and falls and total deficit rises and falls. With a 5% contraction in GDP, your debt is going to look much worse than it did a year earlier even if you haven't added to it much.

by Upstate NY on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 01:26:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I find the official November 2010 EU release here, and the April 2010 release with the previous data here. The GDP revisions were modest (slightly upwards for the first two years and more – c. -1% – downwards for 2008 and 2009); but there is a massive upwards correction of both deficits and debts, in Euros as well as ratios to GDP, for all years between 2006 and 2009 (in fact the deficit corrections well exceed the GDP corrections in Euros!). So again further missing/mis-estimated items were found for all successive years, which cumulated. The upwards corrections in end-of-year total debt in percentage points (it's the same story in Euros):

2006 - +8.3 (to 106.1%)
2007 - +9.3 (to 105.0%)
2008 - +11.1 (to 110.3%)
2009 - +11.7 (to 126.8%)

The "Greeks were lying" story was also out based on the idea that their debt to GDP was at 115%.

I just don't get what you are arguing about. Fact is the debt and deficit numbers had to be retroactively revised, and always revised upwards, in every year from 2005, and always for multiple preceding years. The November 2010 revisions were just the last in the line, and, just like the previous, affected multiple years of prior data.

The yearly budget deficit at the time was considered to be in the 11% range.

The April 2010 estimate (which contains a specific note from Eurostat on reservations on the data from Greece, but with estimated magnitudes of the problem below the actual November corrections) gives -13.6% for the 2009 deficit.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 04:02:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What I'm saying is that people didn't wake up in early 2010 and say, "Holy cow, the Greeks have 115% debt to GDP. They lied to us. We didn't know things were that bad!"

Even given the revisions you cite above, they are only 4%-5% over the previous numbers prior to 2009.

At the time, Eurostat was showing that Greece was running 100-105% debt to GDP for over a decade.

by Upstate NY on Mon Nov 28th, 2011 at 01:45:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, the plan for taxing Belgian war laborers was dropped this week, "after a row between Berlin and Brussels":

Berlin won't collect tax from WWII victims - The Local

Germany moved Monday to reassure Belgium that people who suffered forced labour at the hands of the Nazis would not have to pay tax on their compensation, after a row between Berlin and Brussels.

Finance ministry spokesman Martin Kotthaus told a regular news conference in Berlin that a law was due to be passed on Friday which would retroactively make this compensation non-taxable.

"This problem no longer exists, or at least will no longer exist very soon," Kotthaus told reporters.

The victims of forced labour during World War II were compensated by a one-off payment that was not subject to tax, added the spokesman.

by Bernard on Sat Nov 26th, 2011 at 12:43:28 PM EST

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