With a 50 percent haircut recently given on the Greek sovereign-debt question, investors are increasingly asking what the real risk of sovereign debt is. It would appear that investors underpriced the risk inherent in sovereign debt, especially that of Europe's periphery. One might even go so far as to say that investors made foolish choices in the past and are now getting their just deserts.
When Greece exchanged its drachma for the euro in 2000, most voters were all for joining the Eurozone. The hope was that it would ensure stability, and that this would promote rising wages and living standards. Few saw that the stumbling point was tax policy. Greece was excluded from the eurozone the previous year as a result of failing to meet the 1992 Maastricht criteria for EU membership, limiting budget deficits to 3 percent of GDP, and government debt to 60 percent.
Soon after the Socialist Party won Greece’s national elections in autumn 2009, it became apparent that the government’s finances were in a shambles. In May 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead in rounding up €120bn ($180 billion) from European governments to subsidize Greece’s unprogressive tax system that had led its government into debt – which Wall Street banks had helped conceal with Enron-style accounting.
Cafés are full in Athens, and droves of tourists still visit the Parthenon and go island-hopping in the fabled Aegean. But beneath the summery surface, there is confusion, anger, and despair as this country plunges into its worst economic crisis in decades. The global media has presented Greece, tiny Greece, as the epicenter of the second stage of the global financial crisis, much as it portrayed Wall Street as ground zero of the first stage. Yet there is an interesting difference in the narratives surrounding these two episodes.