The press and others quite naturally interpreted this sentence to mean that the Greek government had failed to take certain specific, agreed-upon actions, and that, had Greece taken those actions, the results would clearly have made Greece's debt load sustainable. I call this a natural interpretation because...well, because that is what it says.If the program had been implemented as assumed, no further debt relief would have been needed under the agreed November 2012 framework. (p. 1, boldface type in the original)
But it turns out that this isn't what the IMF means at all.
The first clue that there is "creative wording" in play -- where "creative wording" is to "wording" as "creative accounting" is to "accounting" -- is in the first clause of the sentence. Why, we might ask, does the IMF refer to the program not being "implemented as assumed," rather than "implemented as agreed?" Is this just an awkwardly indirect way of saying the same thing, since the IMF assumed that Greece would implement the program as agreed?
Actually, no: the use of the word "assumed" turns out to be crucial to real meaning of the sentence. Specifically, the assumptions in question go well beyond expectations of the Greek government's actions to include a series of jaw-droppingly unrealistic assumptions about what the results of those actions would be. (Aside 1)
The next clue appears two pages later, where we find a subtly different version of the conclusion:
Taking into account all these background factors, if the key program targets had remained achievable, Greece’s medium-term debt profile would have improved by up to 13 percent of GDP. [...] No further relief would, therefore, have been needed under the November 2012 framework. (p.3 emphasis added)
Leaving aside for the moment whether the program targets were ever "achievable," we still might wish the IMF would get its story straight. Was the program not implemented, or did the program targets become unachievable? (I suppose that one might argue that not achieving the impossible is a failure of implementation, if "achieve the impossible" is itself the extent of the plan. But the fault nevertheless seems to lie less with the execution and more with the plan -- and the plan's authors.)
But enough of generalities and conclusions. What can the IMF analysis tell us about the specific failures of reality to conform to plan? For illustration, let's look at my favorite example -- an extreme case, perhaps, but characteristic of the sort of thinking underlying the IMF's program targets.
Perhaps the single greatest disappointment of the IMF's expectations has been the failure of billions of Euros to materialize from the sale of the Greek government's stake in various enterprises.
Over the course of the SBA and the EFF arrangement, receipts have consistently fallen short of program projections by huge margins. The fourth SBA review in July 2011 projected €50 billion to materialize through end–2015. Actual receipts through the first quarter of 2015 were €3.2 billion, about 94 percent below the target. (p.8, Box 1)Now, if the Greek government actually had something it could sell to private investors for €50 billion, its debts would certainly look a lot more sustainable. But what could it be? And how exactly did the IMF reach this valuation? The June 26 analysis is actually rather revealing on this point, for we learn the following:
The projected privatization proceeds under the program were €23 billion over the 2014–22 period. Half of these proceeds were to come from privatizing state holdings of the banking sector. (p. 4)Let's spell that out: the IMF expected the Greek government to realize €11.5 billion by selling its stake in Greek banks. (Question for the reader: what would you pay for an equity stake in the Greek banking system? If your answer is €11.5 billion, please send me your contact information - or, to save time, just send your ATM card.)
In summary, when the IMF writes about the the failure to implement the program as assumed, this is the sort of thing is has in mind: the "failure" of the Greek government to find anyone willing to pay €11.5 billion for a stake in banks that require daily injections of liquidity from the ECB simply to keep the cash machines full.
Which brings us to the question in the title of this post. When you, objective and informed as you undoubtedly are, read the page-one sentence cited at the beginning of this post (the one set in bold type, both here and in the IMF report itself) is this the sort of "implementation failure" that leaps to mind? Or is the report's most widely cited single sentence also the most misleading sentence ever?
(Aside 1) For those who have been following the IMF's work on this subject, this will undoubtedly feel quite familiar. The obstinate refusal of the IMF's economic dreams to come true has been a recurring theme in every IMF analysis of Greece since the agency's original work of imaginative fiscal fiction in 2010. Apparently, reality owes the IMF a very big apology.