Despite Greek Deal, Sovereign Debt Crisis Isn't Over
The focus of the crisis will now move on to peripheral European countries, where the economic arithmetic is not much better than that of Greece only a few years ago.
… (December 11, 2009) – Greece's prime minister, George Papandreou, told reporters in Brussels on Friday that European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker see "no possibility" of a Greek default, Bloomberg News reported. Papandreou also said that there was no possibility of Greece leaving the euro area, according to the report.
… (January 29, 2010) – There is no bailout and no "plan B" for the Greek economy because there is no risk it will default on its debt, the European monetary affairs commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, insisted on Friday.
… (September 16, 2010) – "Restructuring is not going to happen. There are much broader implications for the eurozone should Greece have to restructure its debt. People fail to see the costs to both Greece and the eurozone of a restructuring: the cost to its citizens, the cost to its access to markets. If Greece restructures, why on earth would people invest in other peripheral economies? It would be a fundamental break to the unity of the eurozone." – George Papaconstantinou, former Greek Finance Minister
… (March 9, 2012) – ISDA EMEA DC Says Restructuring Credit Event Has Occurred With Respect To Greece
… (This week) – Take your pick from scores of quotes from various EU leaders: "A Greek default has no real impact on the rest of the Eurozone. No other countries are at risk." Or: "The contagion 'domino effect' from Greece no longer threatens the rest of Europe, according to Marco Buti, the director general for economic affairs at the European Commission. In addition, Portugal and Ireland were said to be 'in a much better place,' while the credibility of Spain and Italy had 'increased.'"
The headlines are about Greece, but the real story is not Greece but who is next. European leaders were right to be worried only a short while ago about contagion effects of a Greek default to the entire Euro system, which of course they now say doesn't exist. This week we look at Europe, and sort through the ever more fascinating implications of the news in today's headlines.
Sarkozy: Problem Solved, Or…Germany to Sarkozy: It's Not Over
Greek is having an "orderly" default. The taxpayers of Europe are in theory going to lend €130 billion to Greece to pay back €100 billion in Greek debt that is owed to private lenders. Greece has to pass several difficult tests in order to get the money. €100 billion of debt to private lenders will be written off. Thus the net effect will be that they owe €30 billion more. How does this help Greece, except that they get €30 billion more they cannot pay?
The "new" debt is already trading in the market, even though it has not actually been issued. (Don't bother traders with messy details, just do the deal.) This page from Bloomberg is just too delicious not to print, sent to me courtesy of Dan Greenhaus of BTIG. It shows the new Greek bonds trading at over a 71-79% discount, depending on the length of maturity. Note this is AFTER the 53% haircut already imposed. That reads to me like the market value of original Greek debt is now between 12 and 14% of the original face value. Didn't I write in this letter early last year that Greek debt would ultimately get a 90% haircut? Let me suggest to my critics that what was pessimistic back then may prove to have been optimistic at the end of the day.
Over 90% (some unconfirmed reports of as much as 95.7%) of Greek bondholders offered their bonds in the swap. The remaining bond holders will be forced by the Greek government to take the deal under a collective action clause, or CAC. But that 90%+ participation rate of bond holders willing to take their lumps may be suspect, according to Art Cashin, writing this morning:
Greece itself is in free fall. The "benefits" of austerity have not become apparent, as the Greek economy saw growth rates of -0.2% in 2008, -3.3% in 2009, -3.4% in 2010, -6.9% in 2011, and...? The fourth quarter of last year saw a GDP fall of 7.5%. Do you see a trend here? The Greek economy is down by almost one-fifth in less than five years.
Unemployment has risen to 20%, and 50% among young people, many of whom are leaving the country. Resentment has grown among ordinary Greeks over the austerity medicine ordered by international creditors, which has compounded the pain. Greek papers are full of stories blaming Germany for their problems.
By any standard, what will soon be a 20% drop can be classified as a depression. There is nothing on the horizon to suggest things will turn around any time soon. The country's public debt-to-GDP ratio currently stands at 160% of nominal gross domestic product, AFTER the debt restructuring. If Greece can find someone to lend them more money, it will only get worse.
The current agreement with the EU will not improve the economy, but require even more wage cuts, government spending cuts, and higher taxes and unemployment. The problem is that if Greece leaves the euro, those problems do not go away, they just take a different form. There is still a great deal of economic pain for Greece as a consequence of past decisions. It is sad, but there is no other choice, unless the rest of Europe or the world, through the IMF, simply gives Greece all the money they want. But then where do you stop?
The citizens of California have chosen to let a series of cities enter bankruptcy, severely cutting police and fire, health, and other services. Europe has had about all the pleasure of bailing out Greece that it can handle, and is clearly ready to say, "Enough!" It is all very sad, but that is the consequence of too much debt and leverage. And every nation is subject to that consequence if it does not keep its own fiscal and economic house in order. Every nation.
The ISDA Steps Up
The ISDA (the International Swaps and Derivatives Association) declared today that Greece is in official default. This is a derivatives-industry committee of 15 members, representing the largest banks and derivative buyers – all the usual suspects. I started to write last week about their hesitancy, but it was very technical and I thought it likely they would issue the ruling they did this week. There are a few things we should note about this decision.
First, there is a widespread misunderstanding that the ISDA is the final answer to whether a nation is in default. The correct answer is, it depends. Credit default swaps are contracts between two private parties . The actual original contract is the governing document. While most contracts named the ISDA as the final arbiter of default, there are many that did not. Some experts told their clients there was a problem with choosing a self-interested industry group to be the final judge, and were very specific in their contracts as to what constituted a default. (Thanks to Janet Tavakoli, who spent an hour late one night patiently explaining the arcana and minutiae of credit default swaps. She literally wrote the book – and not just one but three of them – on swaps.)
It does not take a finance major to understand that if you do not get your money paid back to you, there was a default of some kind. If the ISDA had not confirmed a default by Greece, they would have ceased to be relevant in any future contracts that were written. It will be interesting to see how contracts are structured in future.
Secondly, the number that keeps showing up in the press is that there are only $3 billion of credit default swaps on Greek debt. That is only half true. The reality is that there is a NET $3.2 billion of CDS on Greek debt. The total or GROSS amount of swaps written is estimated to be about $60-70 billion (Dan Greenhaus, Chief Global Strategist, BTIG). This is in the 4,323 contracts that are known about.
Of the net exposure, the loss is likely to be less than the $3.2 billion, unless Greek debt goes to absolute zero. But that does not tell the whole story. For instance, just one Austrian state-owned "bad bank," KA Finanz, faces a hit of up to 1 billion euros ($1.31 billion) for the hole Greece's debt restructuring punches in its balance sheet. That loss, which will be borne by Austrian taxpayers, is someone else's gain. The net number means nothing to them – they lose it all, over a third of the expected total loss.
Every bank and hedge fund, insurance company, and pension fund has its own situation. Care to wager that the larger banks won't win on this trade? My bet is that there will be $30 billion in losses, out of which maybe someone will make $27 billion in gains.
Will the counterparty that holds your offsetting CDS be able to pay? Will all taxpayers be so accommodating as Austria's? Does anyone think that taxpayers will bail out a hedge fund that cannot pay its debt, if it sold protection and has to default?
Would that it was "only" a $3 billion loss spread among the largest losers. That would be trivial in the grand scheme of things. Will Greece really stress the system, as it was stressed in 2008? The answer is, not likely, since European taxpayers have found €100 billion to cover the debt and the ECB has printed over €1 trillion, which has postponed any debt crisis for the immediate future. But the question that we must ask in a few paragraphs is, how many more countries will have to restructure their debt?
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