Euro Area Sovereign Debt Keeps Plunging

The to and fro in the debate over how to proceed with Greece's rescue, now that Greece has clearly missed the fiscal target conditions set by its original bailout package, continues to bedevil the bond markets of all the de facto bankrupt peripheral euro area nations. As we noted in a recent missive, the debate in Germany over involving private creditors in the next phase of the Greek rescue has introduced considerable fresh uncertainties. It looked at first as though Germany was going to climb down from this demand and adopt the ECB line. However, the latest news is that the German governing coalition is now 'debating how to involve private creditors'.

 

According to Reuters:

 

German members of parliament are discussing on Thursday a joint motion for a resolution demanding the fair participation of private creditors in future aid to Greece, a draft of the paper obtained by Reuters said.

The deputies from all three parties in Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition are demanding to have a say in agreements for new aid packages, the resolution said.

"The German parliament urges the government to only agree to new financial aid for Greece if an appropriate participation of private creditors has been introduced," the document said. "That way Greece's ability to carry its debt and so that a fair distribution between public and private sides can be reached."

The document is not binding for the German government, but can be seen as a guideline for its leaders when they enter negotiations with other EU leaders.

Policymakers aim to have a deal ready for a June 20 meeting of EU finance ministers and euro zone governments have edged closer to a compromise this week. How to involve the private sector, however, has been hotly contested within the single currency bloc.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble in a letter earlier this week proposed a swap in which private debt holders would trade in their Greek government bonds for new ones, giving Greece an extra seven years to work through its debt. France on the other hand, was against any form of debt restructuring, but sources familiar with government thinking said on Thursday it could back a private-sector rollover if a voluntary formula could be found to avoid wider damage markets.

The resolution also demands for renewed IMF participation for any new rescue package and demands Greece produce reliable earnings from privatizations.”

 

(our emphasis)

Note the French demand that any participation of private creditors has to be 'voluntary'. How is such 'voluntary participation' going to be negotiated before the looming deadline on June 20? It is simply impossible. As we have noted before, Moody's and Fitch both have already let it be known that they will not consider such an agreement to be 'voluntary' – and that creates a considerable stumbling block, as the ECB likewise insists that any haircut to private creditors arrived at by compulsion will be deemed unacceptable. This is to say, it will then no longer accept Greek government bonds in repos. Jean-Claude Trichet has frequently stressed these points in yesterday's ECB press conference, which can be watched in its entirety here.

It should be perfectly clear that any private creditor participation – as desirable and necessary as it surely is – can not be considered 'voluntary' if it is based on 'resolutions' issued by national parliaments or governments. This is a catch-22 situation that seems intractable.

Moreover, another potential stumbling block to the EU's bailout policies is slowly but surely taking shape in Germany – the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is beginning to hear arguments in the constitutional challenges to the aid package raised by several prominent economists and politicians. Although the court has proved pliable in the past and has tended to side with the German government's line in EU related questions, we would submit that there is no guarantee this will continue. Clearly, if the judges were to resort to a strict interpretation of Germany's constitution and how it relates to the Lisbon treaty's obligations and rights (which were already once modified due to an earlier court ruling – this was the first bone the court threw to euro-skeptics, see articles Mr. Gauweiler's Challenge and Gauweiler's Challenge – an update),  the court would not be able to dismiss the challenges entirely. More likely it would have to issue a directive asking the government to once again renegotiate the requisite passages of the Lisbon treaty. If this were coupled with a temporary injunction against further disbursements to the EFSF, the entire bailout scheme would immediately collapse. As Germany's FAZ reports:

 

“Das Bundesverfassungsgericht wird am 5. Juli über die Klagen gegen den Euro-Rettungsschirm sowie gegen die Griechenland-Hilfe mündlich verhandeln. Das gab das Gericht am Donnerstag bekannt. Damit wird die Bundesregierung vor dem Gericht begründen müssen, inwiefern die Maßnahmen zur Stabilisierung der europäischen Währung mit dem Grundgesetz und womöglich mit europäischem Recht übereinstimmen. Ursprünglich war im Zweiten Senat erwogen worden, nicht öffentlich zu verhandeln. Doch diese Haltung hat sich offenbar im Zuge der Beratungen verändert. Zu rechnen ist mit einer grundlegenden Entscheidung etwa zum Budgetrecht des Parlaments.

Geklagt hat eine Gruppe um den Euro-Skeptiker Joachim Starbatty. Die Hilfen sind aus Starbattys Sicht mit den EU-Verträgen nicht vereinbar. Die Kläger befürchten, dass sich die EU langfristig zu einer Finanz- und Transferunion entwickelt. Im Rahmen des Rettungsschirms kann Deutschland Garantien für Kredite an Euro-Länder in Höhe von bis zu 148 Milliarden Euro abgeben. Insgesamt hat er ein Volumen von 750 Milliarden Euro. Er soll die Finanzmärkte von weiteren Spekulationen über Staatspleiten in der Euro-Zone abbringen.”

translation:

“The federal constitutional court will hear oral arguments in the challenges against the euro 'rescue umbrella' as well as the aid to Greece on July 5. This was announced by the court on Thursday. The federal government will have to explain to the court how the measures to stabilize the euro currency accord with the constitution and European law. Originally the second senate considered a trial in camera [a non-public trial, ed.]. However, this view appears to have changed in the course of recent deliberations. One must expect a fundamental decision, for instance regarding the budgetary rights of parliament. Plaintiff is a group around the euro-skeptic Joachim Starbatty. In Starbatty’s view, the aid program is not compatible with the EU treaties [he’s right, ed.].  The plaintiffs fear that the EU is going to develop into a fiscal and transfer union in the long term [right again, ed.]. In the framework of the rescue package, Germany can issue credit guarantees for euro area member nations in the amount of up to € 148 billion. Overall, the size of the rescue package amounts to € 750 billion. It is designed to dissuade financial markets for further speculation on national bankruptcies within the euro area [hasn’t worked so far, ed.].”

 

More potential problems are lurking elsewhere. In Finland, it has proved impossible to form a government that excludes the euro-skeptic and fiercely anti-bailout 'True Finns' party (see: 'Katainen turns to Euro-skeptics amid Impasse'). Thus the negotiations over the coalition government will now have to include the True Finns. Should they become member of the new government, one should expect that Finland will at a bare minimum demand significant alterations to the current bailout arrangements. It may even cease to agree to any further bailouts. Since the euro-group can only make unanimous decisions, this would significantly upset the apple cart.

Moreover, there are not only daily demonstrations and strikes in Greece that are paralyzing the Greek economy, but there are even more bad news emerging lately that may eventually lead to a 'non-linear market dislocation' (i.e., a panic). For instance, Greece's Qu.1 GDP has come in way below expectations, shrinking by 5.5%. As Reuters reports:

 

“Greece's economy shrank far more than expected in annual terms at the start of 2011, signalling a second wave of austerity measures demanded by the EU and IMF will pile even more pain on a fractious society.

Athens plan for avoiding a debt default and tackling its budget crisis depends on squeezing revenue out of the economy, but sharp downward revisions to first quarter data suggested the mountain the government must climb is even higher than thought.

Gross domestic product tumbled 5.5 percent in the first three months of this year, the official numbers showed, far more than a earlier of flash estimate of 4.8 percent.

Emilie Gay, an economist at Capital Economics, said that bode ill for Greek attempts to meet targets for cutting the budget deficit which the international lenders have prescribed.

"We expect the economy to contract by 5 percent this year. For us this means Greece will fail to meet its targets as it did last year," she said.

International lenders who bailed out Greece last year with a 110 billion euro loan said in a report on Wednesday they expected GDP to shrink by 3.8 percent this year and start growing in 2012.

"The data leave limited hope that a turnaround in domestic economic activity is nearing," said Platon Monokroussos, an economist at EFG Eurobank in a measured comment on the data which caught financial markets off their guard.”

 

Bond yields of euro area peripherals immediately soared upon the news. According to another Reuters report:

 

“Greek bond yields soared and the cost of insuring the country's debt hit a record high on Thursday after worsening GDP data highlighted its chronic economic problems.

Benchmark German debt prices showed little reaction after the European Central Bank kept interest rates on hold, as forecast, with markets expecting the ECB to signal a July rate hike in a news conference due at 1230 GMT. The 10-year Greek yield GR10YT=TWEB climbed 61.8 basis points to 16.72 percent, extending an early rise after first quarter GDP data pointed to a worse than previously thought recession in the heavily indebted euro zone state.

"The problem is not only that Greece won't return to (debt) markets but the deeper the recession, the harder it is for Greece to reach their deficit goals for this year, said Birgit Figge, strategist at DZ Bank. Two-year Greek bond yields soared by 145 bps to 25.72 percent, nearing the euro lifetime high of around 27 percent. The EU, ECB and IMF mission to Greece said in a report obtained by Reuters on Wednesday that the next disbursement of Greek aid could not take place until it corrected the under-financing in its adjustment programme.

"It doesn't read very well at all… I can't see anything supportive in there for Greece," a trader said.

Policymakers appeared to be edging closer to a compromise on how to structure a second aid package for Greece, but markets saw a negative immediate impact of any solution involving private sector bondholders.

"The risk is that if Greece restructures or reprofiles, Portugal and Ireland are going to get smashed and Spain and Italy are going to get shot at too. It's brutal," the trader said.

Portuguese 10-year bond yields PT10YT=TWEB were around 14 bps higher on the day, setting new euro lifetime highs at 10.97 percent. Rating agencies have said most forms of debt exchange would be considered a default and markets fear the resulting sell-off in Greek debt would trigger fresh downgrades for other lower-rated euro zone states.

With question marks over whether the IMF will release the next tranche of funding from Greece's first bailout — crucial if Athens is to meet obligations in coming months — the price of short-dated Greek bonds looked too high, said ING rate strategist Alessandro Giansanti.

"The risk of seeing a default in Greece this year is clearly increasing… the market is underestimating this risk," he said.”

 

(our emphasis)

 


 

10 year Greek government note yields jump to 16.746% – just beneath the record highs reached in May – click for higher resolution.

 


 

Portugal's 10 year government note yield reaches a new lifetime high of 10.434% – click for higher resolution.

 


 

Ireland's 10 year government note yield jumps to a new lifetime high of 11.34% – click for higher resolution.

 


 

It is clear that therefore the unrecognized losses of in the government securities holdings of euro area banks keep soaring.

 

The ECB Becomes a Dumping Ground for Toxic Assets and Greece is in the Grip of a Bank Run

The ECB itself is in fact 'factually insolvent' as Jim Grant notes here.

 

“With Greece confronting a possible restructuring of its bonds, the European Central Bank‘s holdings of those securities put it at grave risk, prominent Wall Street investment guru Jim Grant said Wednesday.

By Grant’s reckoning, the ECB’s purchases of bonds issued by debt-laden peripheral countries in the euro zone and its “discount window” lending liquidity in return for the collateral of such bonds has left it “factually insolvent.”

“The looming threat in European monetary affairs is the financial integrity of the central bank itself,” said Grant, who is the editor of Interest Rate Observer. He spoke during a freewheeling discussion with Jim O’Neill, chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, at the offices of Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.

The ECB’s exact exposure through discount-window lending seems to be some multiple of its paid-in capital, Grant said. In the case of Greece, the central bank has leveraged assets to “evident capital” of 150 or so to one, he calculated. And part of that capital is revalued property and land, Grant said.”

 

We would furthermore note to this that the ECB's balance sheet is brimming with dubious securities.  We have previously shown the chart of the composition of its assets, which we  depict again below. This is an astonishing collection of highly dubious and likely 'toxic' junk.

 


 

ECB assets , via Der Spiegel – a dubious collection indeed – click for higher resolution.

 


 

In addition to this, the ECB has amassed a large chunk of non-marketable assets as well, amounting to a total of € 360 billion by now. In fact, it appears euro area banks have created a boatload of 'asset backed securities' (ABS), the same securities that were so instrumental in the run on money market funds in 2008, with the express intention of unloading them on the ECB in repos.  It is also noteworthy in the context that US based money market funds have currently 42% of their assets invested in dollar-denominated commercial paper issued by European banks. It is easy to see therefore that the risk of a Greek default has systemic implications that go way beyond the euro area. 

 


 

Non-marketable assets held by the ECB via Der Spiegel. These assets could not possibly be sold in extremis – the ECB is the only institution the banks can use as a pawn shop for this stuff – click for higher resolution.

 


 

Lastly, there is now a serious run on the Greek banks. First only the wealthy withdrew heir deposits, but now middle class people have also begun with their own 'rescue operation', i.e. they are rescuing their savings and nest eggs. For more details on this ever more intense bank run, see this recent article by Colin Barr, 'Greek Banks under Siege'.

 


 

A chart of household deposits at Greek banks, via CLSA – the bank run is becoming intense – click for higher resolution.

 


 

The ECB keeps financing the growing funding gap that the banks in Greece, Portugal and Ireland are faced with. It is worth noting in this context that the euro-area system's central banks (i.e. the former national CB's that are now arms of the ECB) can themselves determine which collateral is eligible for repos. This is not a decision made on the central level by the ECB board and it explains why ever more trash is accumulating on the ECB's balance sheet.

 





The Wailing Wall of Athens

(Photo source unknown)

 


 

US Banks Under Siege As Well

There are also ever more strains visible in the US credit markets, specifically the mortgage credit sector. We have previously remarked on the dismal performance of US listed bank stocks, which keep losing ground in both absolute and relative terms.

 


 

The Philly Bank Index, BKX. In a protracted sinking spell since the February high – click for higher resolution.

 


 

The BKX relative to the SPX, weekly. This is a very weak chart – the corrective bounce topped way back in April of 2010 already – click for higher resolution.

 


 

Bank of America (BAC). This is one of the largest US banks and its stock price has been in free-fall for some time. Analysts continue to insist that the stock is 'cheap' and should be bought. There are 17 'buy' recommendations on the stock and not a single 'sell'. As so often, WS analyst ratings prove useless for investors and should be treated as a contrary indicator – click for higher resolution.

 


 

There are a number of very good reasons for the recent dismal performance of US bank stocks. There are for one thing the new capital regulations that are currently debated that may force the banks to set aside a far larger amount of capital than hitherto. Alas, this is certainly not the most important reason for the poor performance of their stocks. What is far more important is the continued deterioration in mortgage collateral and the growing danger of a sharp increase in 'jingle mail' as more and more mortgagors are underwater. This has begun to be reflected in the Markit ABX-HE indexes that are used to hedge or bet on specific pools of residential mortgage debt. These indexes are synthetic, but they do represent the value of the underlying mortgage collateral. We have picked out several representative charts showing the recent crash in these indexes:

 


 

ABX HE A 06 1 – a 2006 vintage mortgage loan pool that was once rated 'A'. Note that all the indexes once traded at par or higher. Recently they have once again crashed, revealing growing credit stress – click for higher resolution.

 


 

An index representing a formerly AA rated pool of 2006 vintage (ABX-HE AA 06-1) – click for higher resolution.

 


 

An AAA rated index of 2006 vintage, ABX PENAAA 06-2 – click for higher resolution.

 


 

A 2007 vintage index, ABX.HE AA 07-2 – click for higher resolution.

 


 

An AAA rated index of 2007 vintage, ABX.HE AAA 07-1 – click for higher resolution.

 


 

A similar deterioration can be observed in Markit's CMBX commercial real estate (CRE) debt indexes, that are used to hedge or bet on the performance of specific CRE loan pools. 

 


 

CMBX.NA AA 4 – North American CRE debt is also collapsing in value again – click for higher resolution.

 


 

Lower rated CRE debt is plunging to new lows as this CMBX index representing BBB-  rated debt shows – click for higher resolution.

 


 

In short, US banks are faced with yet another collapse in the value of mortgage debt incurred at the height of the bubble. Although the FASB regulation that suspended mark-to-market accounting in April of 2009 means that they do not have to disclose these losses, it makes the losses no less real. In fact, this is a situation that is very analogous to the one the euro area banks are facing in connection with their government bond holdings – as long as no default is declared, one can pretend that these bonds will be repaid at par. Alas, the reality remains that they would fetch far less than that in the marketplace.

Moreover, a recent report from the BIS (Bank for International Settlement, the 'central bank's bank') shines a light on the exposure US banks may have to Greece and other euro area peripherals through derivatives. While there are no details available, one must infer from the BIS data that the exposure is much higher than was hitherto suspected. For instance, it appears as though US banks have been writers of CDS on euro area sovereign debt. In case of a credit event, they would be liable for paying out significant amounts to the holders of such CDS. For a detailed discussion of these exposures see e.g. 'Sizing up the Greek risk to US banks' at CNN Money, and also 'Betting on the PIGS' at Street Light.

 

Below is a table from a recent CLSA report  that shows the most recent BIS data on  bank exposure to the PIGS  grouped by various nations:

 


 

Total bank exposures to the 'PIGS', grouped by nations, via CLSA. As can be seen, these are not exactly trivial amounts – click for higher resolution.

 


 

In conclusion, credit market stress is once again increasing all around the Western world. It probably won't take much to once again create a full-fledged panic. It appears to us that this growing risk is not yet reflected in the markets. Complacency still appears to be rife. The ongoing and increasingly fractious debate over how to handle the Greek insolvency could easily lead to what is an outcome that is currently clearly not expected by the markets. The problem of how to involve private creditors in a Greek debt restructuring while still pretending that this is 'voluntary' on their part appears intractable. Of course it is clear that investors in this debt should not rely on being bailed out forever. They voluntarily took a risk and should therefore be prepared to accept that they have made a bad decision and will lose money.

Alas, there will still be considerable market upheaval once this becomes reality and the current 'extend and pretend' period well and truly ends. This happens just as the US real estate credit markets are once again becoming highly unstable and losses are once again mounting.

In other words, when it rains, it pours. People must keep in mind that in the end, it is 'all one credit market' – when confidence falters,  damage to all sorts of ostensibly uncorrelated assets tends to ensue. Credit market stress is never 'well contained'. Providers of liquidity tend to quickly become fearful and hold on to their cash and cash substitutes. Market liquidity then evaporates, leading to indiscriminate selling. Clearly, the risks are increasing by the day.

 

Charts by: StockCharts.com, Bloomberg, MarkIt, Der Spiegel, CLSA


 

 

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