Europe’s half-baked deal

October 27, 2011
deal like the one we got last night managed to significantly exceed expectations, making it seem that it's being ratified by market action today.

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Here’s one upside to the fact that Europe finds it almost impossible to agree on anything these days: even a half-baked deal like the one we got last night managed to significantly exceed expectations, making it seem that it’s being ratified by market action today.

There are three main parts to the deal. The first is an agreement, in principle, to leverage the European Financial Stability Facility by a factor of about four. Good idea! Except, the EFSF can’t just borrow $750 billion from its friendly prime broker. So where’s the extra money going to come from? There are a few ideas; foremost among them are “risk insurance” (which would be intended to raise the rest of the money from the private sector), and borrowing the money from Uncle Jintao in Beijing. At the moment it’s all rather inchoate. One place the money’s not coming from is the ECB, which found it hard enough just to keep on buying bonds from Spain and Italy.

The second main part of the deal is the bank recapitalization, where 70 banks — primarily in Greece and Spain — are going to be given €106 billion in order to bring their core capital up to 9%. This is a move in the right direction, but it’s also pretty marginal: the big French banks, for instance, aren’t going to need any more money at all, and in fact almost no bank you’ve actually heard of is covered by this. It’s mainly a way of forcing bailout funds to be injected straight into the banking sector.

Finally, there’s the Greek default, which has now been upgraded from a 21% haircut to a 50% haircut. This is the headline-grabbing announcement, but don’t hold your breath. The deal was negotiated by the IIF, a membership organization which represents banks but can’t commit them to anything. While the IIF’s head, Charles Dallara, walks around feeling important, his member banks are ultimately going to have to make their own decisions on whether they’re going to tender their holdings of Greek debt into a new exchange, and if so how much of their debt they will tender. What are the chances that all IIF members are going to tender all their bonds? Exactly zero.

Which is why, on one level, the ISDA statement that this still isn’t a Greek default, for CDS purposes, makes some sense. I’d probably make the same decision myself. But on the other hand, this does make a farce of the idea that credit default swaps constitute default protection, at least in the sovereign arena. If they don’t protect you against this, what earthly use are they?

And although banks — if this plan goes through — will write down their Greek-debt holdings by 50%, that does not mean Greece itself will see the value of its private-sector liabilities shrink by anything close to 50%. Neil Unmack explains:

Assume, very generously, that private creditors holding 200 billion euros of bonds sign up for the deal. That’s about 90 percent of Greece’s outstanding private debt, excluding those bonds held by the European Central Bank and short-term treasury bills. A 50 percent haircut would reduce Greece’s total debt by 100 billion euros, to around 256 billion euros.

However, in order to sweeten the deal, Greece will also give bondholders 30 billion euros of risk-free collateral to underpin the value of their new bonds. Greece will have to borrow that amount from Europe’s bailout fund. That lifts its total debt to 286 billion euros, or about 130 percent of GDP – higher than in 2009 when the country’s debt crisis first erupted.

In other words, the new Greek bonds won’t be pure Greek debt: there will be a bunch of risk-free pan-European debt in there, too. And Greece will ultimately be on the hook for that new debt.

This deal, then, is the toughest kick that the can has yet been dealt in its bumpy journey down the road. That’s probably a good thing. But the euro crisis is very, very far from being resolved. And even this deal could — indeed, probably will — fall apart at some point. Unless, that is, you think that Europe’s banks are quietly going to accept a 50% haircut when they couldn’t even unify to accept 21%.


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