Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Collateral damage

'What the hell are you doing to the Euro?'

That is how a client greeted me on arrival at a meeting last week.
You can imagine my confusion.
I was pretty sure I hadn't done anything to the euro.
Not recently, anyway.
I was pretty confident that my company had done nothing to the euro either – suspecting we would have noticed if we had gotten mighty enough to destabilize the supreme European currency.
The meeting I had just arrived at was decidedly not about the state of the euro. Nor was it about European fiscal policy. But it was taking place in a country where the euro is indeed in use so I suspected my client of wittily referring to something that had hit the news that day, implicating our industry and the fate of the euro.
But no.
None of the above.

Seeing my confused look he elaborated: 'what are you Greeks doing to the Euro?'.
That one.

What the Greeks are doing to the Euro is hitting the news hard all over the world. Apart from Greece. And I seem to have to personally answer for it wherever I go in Europe.
Thanks guys.

'Was being back home for Christmas really depressing?' asked an Irish friend whose own credit crunched homeland showed signs of wear and strain over the holidays.
But the answer is no, being back in Greece was really not depressing because the vast majority of people have not fully appreciated how bad things are.

How can that be?
'How bad things in Greece are' is on the news all over the world all the time, how can the Greeks not realise?
Are we just unfazed because we are so used to being in trouble?
Are we just serene because our government seems to suggest this ship ain't sinking?
Or are we still calm because we believe in some comforting conspiracy theory: maybe the EU is picking on us but, really, Ireland, Spain and – wait for it – France and Germany are in exactly the same pot and we are just being made an example of. And before you mock me, I didn't make the last one up. I heard it. From a Greek banker. Nuff said.

So. What are the Greeks actually doing to the euro?
In some ways, they are doing no more to the euro than they have been doing to the drachma since time immemorial. Only now they are not on their own, this is not their own little gig – theirs (ours) to mess up to their hearts' content – others are watching and suffering overspill from the Greeks' mess and, to be brutally honest, they don't much like it.

In some way however, we have to ask ourselves, whether this is different to other times because, well, those 'times' have lasted so bloody long that something will eventually have to give. There is no system, no economy, no society that can survive being in a perpetual state of crisis without something either being fixed or ending up irreparably broken.

So which will it be in Greece?
Those of you who have been reading this blog regularly know that optimism is not my strong suit.
And much as I try, I don't see a solution on the horizon.
And I mean this in both senses: I do not see what the possible solution could be given the magnitude, depth and complexity of the problems facing Greece and their multiple interconnections with other problems, in Greece and abroad, that all point to the need for a whole host of radical, visionary and above all rapid solutions to be kicked off at once and, let's face it, when did that ever happen within a state bureaucracy?
But neither do I see a solution (of whatever magnitude) being put on the table by any domestic or international agent, political or regulatory.

So if no solution, then what?
We can hope that things will carry on ticking over.
But for how long?
And when they stop being able to tick along – there is only so much you can do with string and scotch tape and there is little else holding the Greek economy together at the moment – then what?

And to be honest, it's not the euro I am worried about.
At the end of the day, money, the economy, fiscal balance are all semiotic exercises and big boys in big offices will work out a way to stabilise things in the end.
It's the people I'm worried about. The people of Greece who had the euro thrust on them with no protection and after watching their salaries shrink and the cost of their lives soar, after being left with few options and little cash, after being taxed for everything and anything to make up the national deficit, now they are being asked 'what have you done to the euro'?

On one level, we did back to the euro what the euro did to us.
It's not big, it's not clever but there was little else to do and there is even less to do now other than hope that whatever crisis ensues doesn't end up breaking the backs of Greek wage-earners. Because at the end of the day, it wasn't them who messed up the euro. It was a string of useless governments and although democracy comes with responsibility for those you voted into power, give us a break, already.

So. We know something's gotta give.
I just hope whatever gives, stays in the realm of banking. I hope it stays in the big offices. I hope it stays out of people's homes.
I hope, but I do not trust.