Ponzi schemes and finance bubbles of all kinds depend on it being in nobody’s short term interest to admit they are worthless – indeed to people having a terrible fear of the consequences once it is discovered the scheme is worthless.
Larry Elliott in the Guardian has an interesting article on how this worked in the great banking bubble. He quotes James Galbraith:
“There was a private vocabulary, well-known in the industry, covering these loans and related financial products: liars’ loans, Ninja loans (the borrowers had no income, no job or assets), neutron loans (loans that would explode, destroying the people but leaving the buildings intact), toxic waste (the residue of the securitisation process). I suggest that this tells you that those who sold these products knew or suspected that their line of work was not 100% honest. Think of the restaurant where the staff refers to the food as scum, sludge and sewage.”
At the moment, everybody knows that Greece will default and cannot effectively reform. But the consequences of admitting this are so disastrous, everybody is pretending not to know. However Northern European politicians are finding that, whatever they agree in cosy EU cabals, their voters are not stupid and are not happy to stump up for massive guarantees sure to be called, and massive loans sure not to be repaid.
Several countries, led by the Austrians, Dutch and Nokialand, now have political leaderships trying desperately to unpick the promises they have made, by demanding solid assets as collateral from the Greek government against any default.
This has caused some puzzlement in the UK Treasury, where a friend of mine is exasperatedly wondering how the Greeks are expected to find up to $100 billion of physical assets to pledge. Greece has a much larger state sector than most other European countries, but any possible assets are slated for privatisation under the vaunted economic reform programme. They can’t both be privatised and pledged for collateral. If Greece had secure reserves it could pledge, it would not be in this mess in the first place, while the tax office building in Thessaloniki or an old coastguard cutter do not carry much genuine market value.
They could, of course, pledge the Parthenon, Mount Olympus etc, I suggest to my friend. She seems to consider it for a moment.
“But think of all the fuss over just the bloody Elgin marbles” she groans.