Greece: Stretching Voluntarism to the Breaking Point – Take It Or Leave It

The Greek debt exchange negotiations have become stuck with the 'final offer' by the banks, which are represented by IIF chief Charles Dallara. The decision whether to accept this will now be in the hands of the euro-group finance ministers and the IMF who must apparently give their placet. How any of this can be defined as 'voluntary' is quite beyond us. In fact, it appears that there is by now very little to be gained from putting obstacles into the way of triggering CDS on Greece, while at the same time all the negative aspects of the exercise which we described previously remain firmly in place. The most important one of those is the fact that the value of CDS as hedging instruments against sovereign default will be irreparably harmed. As a result bond holders can no longer properly hedge themselves and will be inclined to simply sell suspect debt instead. It also doesn't remove the incentive of speculators to bet against dubious sovereign credits: instead of buying the CDS, they will simply short the underlying bonds (as David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital has e.g. recently done).

As to why nothing can be gained, consider this chart recently published at the FT's Alphaville blog:

 


 

CDS contracts on Greece's sovereign debt, outstanding notional amounts. These have now shrunk to the equivalent of roughly $ 3billion. Compared to the mountain of outstanding Greek debt this is but a drop in the ocean. Triggering these contracts won't create any additional market turmoil, as the CDS writers have in any event posted margin collateral against them – click chart for better resolution.

 


 

Dallara meanwhile declared himself 'hopeful' that a 'voluntary' deal could still be struck, but at the same time pointed out that there is in fact a threshold that if crossed, would put the voluntary nature of the debt exchange into doubt.

As Reuters reports:

 

“Euro zone finance ministers will decide on Monday what terms of a Greek debt restructuring they are ready to accept as part of a second bailout package for Athens after negotiators for private creditors said they could not improve their offer.

Resolving the issue of a Greek debt swap is key to putting Athens' debt on a sustainable path and avoiding a chaotic default that could threaten the whole currency bloc.

After several rounds of talks, Greece and its private creditors are converging on a deal in which private bondholders would take a real loss of 65 to 70 percent on their Greek bonds, officials close to the negotiations said. But some details of the debt restructuring, which will involve swapping existing Greek bonds for new, longer-term bonds to bring Greek debt down to a more sustainable 120 percent of GDP in 2020 from 160 percent now, are unresolved.

"What I am confident of is that our offer, that was delivered to the prime minister, is the maximum offer consistent with a voluntary PSI deal," Institute of International Finance chief Charles Dallara, who is negotiating on behalf of banks and insurers holding Greek debt, told Antenna TV on Sunday. "We are at a crossroads and I remain quite hopeful," said Dallara, who left Athens on Saturday without a deal in place.

Once the guidance from the finance ministers, known as the Eurogroup, is clear, talks on the restructuring could be finalized later in the week.

"It is a very delicate moment," Greek government spokesman Pantelis Kapsis told Greek state radio. "The only thing that I can say as a government spokesman is that tonight, there is a very important meeting at the Eurogroup and we hope that serious steps will be made towards a deal."

 

(emphasis added)

 


 

IIF (Institute of International Finance) chief Charles Dallara glimpsed as he is ferried to debt talks in Athens.

(Photo credit: Yiorgos Karahalis)

 


 

It is clear that the private sector creditors have now arrived at the 'take it or leave it' point. If their most recent offer is again rejected, then there won't be a 'voluntary' deal. This would put Greece into default (instead of a merely 'temporary' default) and this is the crux of the whole song and dance over pretending that the debt exchange is 'voluntary'. Once Greece is officially in default, the public sector lenders such as the ECB and the IMF can no longer credibly maintain that the Greek debt they hold is worth its face value.

As Bloomberg reports, it is not only the euro-group finance ministers, but as mentioned above, also the IMF that must agree to the deal. Meanwhile, the combination of a worsening Greek economic situation and the insistence of public sector lenders that they are to be exempted from haircuts has set off a spiral of ever increasing demands with regards to the size of the haircut private sector creditors must suffer.

 

“Dallara, managing director of the Washington-based Institute of International Finance, said he’s hopeful the EU and IMF will agree to terms for private investor involvement in a rescue of Greece to avert a default and collapse of the economy. He declined to elaborate on the terms discussed in talks that resumed Jan. 18 and remained inconclusive as EU finance ministers prepared to meet in Brussels today.

“The elements now are in place for an historical voluntary PSI deal,” Dallara said in comments on Athens-based Antenna TV, televised yesterday. “It is a question now, really, of the broader reaction of the European official sector and, of course, of the IMF to this proposal.”

[…]

“The longer the Greek debt talks take, the more negative it is,” said Otto Dichtl, a London-based credit analyst for financial companies at Knight Capital Europe Ltd. “The longer it takes, the more demands the official sector makes because the situation keeps worsening in Greece.”

After two years of wage cuts and tax increases, the Greek economy was expected to shrink about 6 percent last year, according to the latest IMF estimates, compared with an forecast of 3.8 percent made in June.

[…]

The parties were nearing an agreement under which old bonds would be swapped for new securities with coupons averaging between 4 percent and 4.5 percent, said a person with knowledge of the discussions three days ago. The New York Times, citing officials involved in the negotiations, reported yesterday that the IMF and Germany are pushing for a coupon in the low 3 percent range.

“We are at a crossroads,” Dallara said. “Either we choose a voluntary debt restructuring; the alternative is to choose the path of default.”

[…]

Questions remain over how the two sides can craft a voluntary deal that will provide the debt relief the Greek government requires while attracting enough participation from bondholders.  The government has said it might pass legislation that would compel full participation from private creditors, a decision that would undercut the voluntary nature of any swap.

Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said on Jan. 19 that for the final deal to lead to a sustainable level of debt for the country there must be a 100 percent participation rate.

Hedge funds holding Greek bonds may resist the deal, seeking greater profit by getting paid in full, either by the Greek government or by triggering payouts from insurance contracts known as credit-default swaps. Vega Asset Management LLC resigned from the committee of creditors negotiating the swap last month because the Madrid-based hedge fund refused to accept a net present value loss exceeding 50 percent, according to a Dec. 7 e-mail sent to other panel members, which was obtained by Bloomberg News.

 

(emphasis added)

All in all this does not sound as though a 'voluntary' deal will be possible. If Venizelos wants a 100% participation rate, then he will have to convince hedge  funds like Vega to participate, but these funds insist that the public sector players hew to the original agreement of a 50% haircut.

At the same time it seems that the IMF and Germany are gunning for a far bigger reduction in the net present value of the bonds private sector creditors are to receive in the exchange. These views can not possibly be reconciled in a manner that preserves the pretend 'voluntarism' of the agreement.

 


 

Greek prime minister Papademos and finance minister Venizelos: 100% participation rate desired.

(Photo credit: Reuters)

 


 

The current state of the talks is that they are basically over with the tabling of the IIF's final offer. The chairmen of the steering committee representing the bulk of the private creditors, the IIF's Dallara and the advisor to the chairman of BNP Paribas, Jean Lermierre, have left Athens on Saturday. They  remain available to the Greek government 'per telephone' if anyone wants to convey anything new to them. The situation is now precisely where Dallara says it is:  at a decisive crossroads.

 

Croatia Joins the EU 

Croatia has just decided to join the EU as its 28th member, following a referendum that produced a 66% approval rate with 98% of the votes counted. While the eurocrats were predictably happy with the outcome, not everyone was.

 

“ The upcoming accession of Croatia sends a clear signal to the whole region of South Eastern Europe,” European Commission President Jose Barroso and EU President Herman Van Rompuy said in a joint statement yesterday. “It shows that through political courage and determined reforms, EU membership is within reach. Today’s positive vote is therefore good news for Croatia, good news for the region, and good news for Europe.”

A last-minute surge in anti-EU opinion threatened to complicate Croatia’s drive toward the bloc. Opposition groups warned membership would mean an erosion of the country’s independence, while EU regulations and stiffer competition would hurt local businesses instead of helping.

Zeljko Sacic, a war veteran and a prominent campaigner against accession, said the referendum was “illegitimate” because turnout at 43.6 percent was the lowest for any plebiscite for EU entry. There is no minimum threshold for a ballot to be valid.

“This referendum is illegitimate and a rough violation of Croatian national interest,” he said on state television yesterday. “This is a defeat of Croatia’s freedom and independence.”

 

(emphasis added)

The opposition groups have a valid point regarding the stifling EU regulations that will henceforth smother business activity in Croatia. Their worries about stiffer competition are however unfounded: increased competition will be a boon for a consumers that far outweighs the potential problems of producers. They certainly also have a point with regards to the questionable democratic legitimacy of the referendum. Meanwhile, the EU has gained another financial and economic weakling seemingly on the verge of a major crisis:

 

“Croatia’s credit rating was lowered a year ago to BBB-, one step above junk, at Standard & Poor’s, which cited a “deteriorated fiscal position and continuously weak” external financing.

Fitch Ratings said on Dec. 5 it will review its assessment in the first quarter in 2012, by which time it expects to have more information regarding the government’s fiscal and economic program.

Croatian five-year credit-default swaps, which are used to insure bondholders against the risk of non-payment, were at 530 points on Jan. 20, up from 523 points on Dec. 5, the day after the elections. Croatian debt is the third-most expensive to insure against default in eastern Europe after Hungary and Ukraine and compares with Italy at 469 points.”

 

(emphasis added)

 

French Business Confidence Falters

While the EU has added another potential crisis flashpoint to its roster, it was just confirmed that France is likely in a worsening recession – business confidence has fallen off a cliff – and apparently this was once again 'unexpected'.

 

“French business confidence unexpectedly fell to the lowest in almost two years this month, providing the latest sign that Europe’s second-largest economy is mired in a recession.

A gage of sentiment among factory managers fell to 91 from 94 in December, national statistics office Insee said today in Paris. That’s the lowest since February 2010. Economists forecast a reading of 95, according to the median of 15 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey.”

 

So much for the forecasting prowess of economists.

 

Portugal in the Market's Crosshairs

Portugal has in the meantime introduced labor market reforms that are likely to help its economy regain its footing. However, following the downgrade of Portugal's debt into 'junk' territory by S&P last week, CDS on Portugal and the 10 year bond yield have continued to soar to new highs. In what appears to be a damage control exercise, 'troika' officials have lauded the reform effort, while insisting that more must be done.

 

“Portugal’s labour market reforms agreed with unions last week are in line with the terms of its international bailout and mark a strong start to boost the country’s external competitiveness, officials from the troika of lenders said on Saturday.
The government, unions and employers on Wednesday signed a pact to make it easier for crisis-hit companies to fire and hire, cut layoff compensation and the number of holidays.  The reforms are designed to increase competitiveness and help businesses as Portugal suffers its worst recession since the 1970s under its 78-billion-euro rescue package.

Officials from the troika — the European Commission, ECB and IMF — praised the reforms at the end three days of informal conversations about structural reforms in Lisbon.  “We are particularly reassured that this agreement, which largely complies with the recommendations of the (bailout) memorandum, was accomplished with the consent of the labour unions,” said EU mission head Juergen Kroeger.”

 

(emphasis added)

The problem is that Portugal's government only met its deficit goal under the bailout agreement last year by means of the once-off theft of private pension fund assets.

 

“Portugal cut its budget deficit last year to an estimated 4 percent of GDP from 9.8 percent in 2010, thanks to a one-off transfer of banks’ pension funds to the state. Without it, the deficit would have been around 7.5 percent, above the 5.9 percent target under the bailout.”

 

Since this exercise is not repeatable, Portugal will likely miss its fiscal targets this year. This is similar to Spain, which met its fiscal targets last year only by starving the budgets of the regions, which the central government is now forced to bail out.  Portugal's debtberg is too big – it remains rather difficult to believe that it won't eventually go down the path of Greece. The markets know it, hence the continued sell-off in Portugal's bonds. This is also egged on by indexation: certain benchmark  bond indexes can not contain junk rated debt, and fund managers investing according to the index weightings therefore have to sell Portugal's bonds. A detailed report on the importance of indexing has been published at the FT's Alphaville blog. Citing a UBS report it notes:

 

“Here for instance is UBS’s European rates strategist Andrew Rowan writing earlier this month:

We believe that a substantial majority of benchmarked investors have for some time been maintaining very underweight positions in Portugal with compensating overweight positions being taken in Italy in particular. However, the four notch downgrade of Portugal by Moody’s on 5 July puts Portugal on the precipice of being ejected from the benchmark indices used by many portfolio managers. If Portugal is downgraded again by either S&P or Fitch, it presumably will be removed from the indices and portfolio managers will have less need to overweight Italy.

Portugal will indeed fall out of the iBoxx sovereign bond indices at the end of this month after being downgraded to Ba2 by Moody’s. (Ireland, which was also downgraded recently, is relatively safe for now).”

 

The important point is that the juggling of bond index weightings due to credit rating downgrades also has effects on the other index components – in short, whenever the weightings change, this can have unexpected effects on the bond prices of index members that are not directly affected by the ratings action in question.

As regards Portugal's bonds, since they are being kicked out of a number of benchmark indexes, a considerable amount of selling pressure has evidently ensued due to the most recent downgrade. Indexing is of course quite relevant to Italy as well – once Fitch and Moody's follow the lead of S&P and downgrade  Italy further, there could be quite a bit of commotion. An estimated € 120 billion of Italian bonds are tied to index-related investment strategies.

 

Credit Market Charts – End of Week Update

Below is our customary collection of charts updating the usual suspects: CDS spreads, bond yields, euro basis swaps and several other charts. Charts and price scales are color coded (readers should keep the different scales in mind when assessing 4-in-1 charts). CDS prices are as of Friday's close.

The credit markets by and large remained in their recent LTRO-induced hopium trance at the end of last week, with the notable exception of Portugal. As noted above, the country's bonds and CDS are dancing perilously close to what looks like a Greek cliff, so to speak.

Bloomberg's European financial conditions index shows the extent to which financial strains in the euro area have  recently eased:

 


 

Bloomberg's European financial conditions index has begun to improve markedly – click chart for better resolution.

 


 

The question is whether we can have a 'wall of worry' for the stock market to climb if there's nothing (or only comparatively little) to worry about.  We probably can't.

Let us explain: when 'QE2' expired, one would normally have expected a slowdown in the growth of the US true money supply aggregates, TMS-1 and TMS-2 (narrow and broad Austrian money supply). Initially, a slight slowdown was indeed observed, but the situation quickly changed again and money supply growth re-accelerated in August. However, neither was there a notable jump in inflationary lending by the commercial banks, nor did the Fed actively expand credit further. The only reasonable explanation was that dollars were 'returning home' from Europe. This was supported by ancillary data, like the strong pullback in lending to French and other euro-land banks by US money market funds and the concomitant cliff-dive in euro basis swaps.

So what happens if these flows reverse again? Given that no 'QE' seems to be on the menu in the near future, one would assume that the expected slowdown in US money supply growth will arrive with a delay – unless the commercial banks take up the baton and expand lending activities again on their own (unlikely).

The FOMC may be considering measures that are less controversial and thus less likely to invite scrutiny than outright asset purchases. One of the plans  being hatched involves its communication policy (linking its policy to the performance of certain target benchmarks of inflation and unemployment for instance). But 'communication' alone probably won't do. Among the possibilities that are open to it there is also the idea to lower the rate paid on excess reserves in order to spur more 'leakage' of same into the economy. If such a strategy were adopted, there would of course be no guarantee it would 'succeed' in producing a renewed bout of money supply inflation. 

So perversely, an easing in euro area financial conditions could affect US economic activity and asset prices negatively by dint of leading to a slowdown in the rate of true money supply growth.

 


 

5 year CDS on France, Belgium, Ireland and Japan. All except CDS on Belgium dipped further on Friday – click chart for better resolution.

 


 

 

5 year CDS on Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia – tiny dips – click chart for better resolution.

 


 

5 year CDS on Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey – these continue to look perky – click chart for better resolution. 

 


 

Three month, one year, three year and five year euro basis swaps – click chart for better resolution.

 


 

5 year CDS on two Austrian banks, Erstebank and Raiffeisen, slightly lower again – click chart for better resolution.

 


 

UK gilts, Austria's 10 year government bond yield, Ireland's 9 year government bond yield and the Greek 2 year note – click chart for better resolution.


 


 

Portugal, 10 year yield in isolation – the downgrade to junk has had an outsized effect – click chart for better resolution.


 


 

EU: euro area business climate indicator. A slight bounce has occurred in the wake of improving sovereign bond yields. Presumably the decline in French business confidence reported today will help turn this indicator down again – click chart for better resolution.

 


 

From Reuters: government bond returns year-to-date. As can be seen, the riskier the issuer, the bigger the return has been – with the glaring exception of Portugal of course. Whether this happy 'risk on' state of affairs will persist is questionable – click chart for better resolution.

 


 

 

 

 

Charts by: Bloomberg


 
 

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4 Responses to “Euro Area Troubles Back in the Spotlight”

  • worldend666:

    >>>The opposition groups have a valid point regarding the stifling EU regulations that will henceforth smother business activity in Croatia. Their worries about stiffer competition are however unfounded: increased competition will be a boon for a consumers that far outweighs the potential problems of producers.

    If I did not live in Bulgaria I would probably say the same thing. However, I have seen how the eu rules can destroy a local economy. Just a couple examples to ponder

    1) Greek agriculture is subsidized massively whilst Bulgarian is not. Bulgaria is an agricultural economy and it’s still cheaper to import Greek vegetables. Does this sound like an efficient market?

    2) Bulgarian farmers are small family businesses and the eu has made it illegal for them to sell their produce because they don’t meet some criteria or other. The irony is that these small farmers probably make healthier products than the “organic” eu approved production from abroad which costs 10 times the black market price for the local produce.

    I would not be surprised to see similar problems in Croatia, which is just down the road.

    • That is of course definitely possible. My intention was to make a point about increased competition as such, I’m well aware that EU subsidies and regulations are often doing more harm than good (although the crisis seems to force some more positive reform efforts lately).

  • Looks like LSD is in vogue in European financial circles, as they have rescued Greece from being broke and they are still going to be broke. It appears they need an 80% haircut on all their debt to even have a chance to get back on their feet. This means the ECB and the IMF are going to have to fund haircuts in some fashion. I wonder if the guy that rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic actually believed he had saved the ship?

    I’m beginning to wonder which of these Central bankers is going to succeed first in destroying their currency? The ECB is now full of totally unmarketable debt and I doubt it could fend off a run on the Euro unless Germany and a few others stepped in and swapped debt with the banks. It appears the banks themselves don’t care that they are buying junk debt, because they are taking it off their own hands. We now have a worldwide lepper colony of banks. Freed from the bondage of insolvent interbank credit, I doubt the banks that have their money back are going to finance these diseased banks again any time soon.

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