Is it now too late to save Greece?
When Goldman Sachs noticed a pattern of regular losses in its mortgage book at the end of 2006, it decided to start going short, in a move which helped to position it as the most successful bank in the financial crisis. The markets have learned their lesson: now that Greece and Portugal have been downgraded, the rush to the exits is palpable: the flight to quality is on, and bond yields in the European periphery are going stratospheric.
Greece’s bonds can still be used as collateral at the ECB: Moody’s hasn’t (yet) downgraded them. But S&P’s sovereign-ceiling principles mean that all of Greece’s banks now have a junk rating, and it’s surely now only a matter of time until Moody’s and Fitch follow S&P’s lead and Greek debt becomes a speculative credit instrument rather a government bond which is safe in anybody’s eyes.
The trick about going short an imploding asset class, of course, is that it only works if you’re in the minority. If everybody is doing it, you just get overshooting asset markets and chaos — which is what we’re seeing now. As far as the financial markets are concerned, if any bailout comes now, it’ll be too late: no country can sustain Greece’s combination of funding costs and debt-to-GDP ratio, no matter how much German money it burns through. Plug 13% yields into my Greek debt calculator, and the results aren’t pretty, even if they don’t have any effect at all on all the other optimistic assumptions.
This is the problem with the way in which the EU insisted that Greece reach a point of desperation, exhausting all other funding opportunities, before it turned to Europe for help. At that point, it might be too late. And it’s going to be really hard to persuade Germany and the rest of Europe that lending new money at low rates to a country in this kind of fiscal situation makes any sense at all.