The Greece game turns chaotic

By Felix Salmon
February 17, 2012

Back in 2010 the ECB started buying Greek bonds to try to prop up Greece’s debt markets. It did so in the open market, which meant that it was the highest bidder at the time; reportedly it paid somewhere in the region of 75 cents on the euro for each bond. They’re currently trading at about half that level, so when the bonds get their 50% haircut, it’s going to lose billions of euros, right?

Wrong. For one thing, as John Carney pointed out in January, it didn’t really spend money on those bonds, it just printed money. If Greece doesn’t pay the ECB back, the worst thing that happens is that the euro money supply gets expanded a little.

But for another thing, it turns out that the ECB had a little trick up its sleeve all along:

The national central banks in the euro zone are set to exchange their holdings of Greek bonds into new bonds in the run up to a private sector debt deal to avoid taking any forced losses, euro zone sources said on Thursday…

Sources said the process could start over the weekend, with one adding that the move was a technicality and that the new bonds would have the same terms as the original ones.

A technicality?! Ha! What’s happening here is many things, but it’s most definitely not a technicality. The ECB is taking its stock of old Greek bonds, which are worth very little and which are going to suffer a whopping great haircut next month, and swapping them out for shiny new bonds which Greece is going to pay in full.

This is no normal bond exchange: No one else gets this deal, and there are no tag-along rights for private-sector investors who might fancy the opportunity to do something similar. It’s a basic tenet of bond market that all bonds of a given series are equal and fungible, and that what happens to one happens to them all. But not here. You can fight about whether this bond is or should be pari passu with that bond, but it’s a no-brainer that any bond is pari passu with itself. Except in this case, it seems, where the ECB’s stock of Greek bonds have suddenly become senior to everybody else’s stock of the exact same securities.

On a conceptual level, it makes sense that the Troika — of which the ECB is a third — might be granted immunity from haircuts, in return for providing new money to Greece. On a legal and practical level, however, this is ugly — and you can be quite sure that it’s only going to get uglier from here on in.

Which brings me to the blog post of the month, from Daniel Davies, a/k/a dsquared. He’s structured the choices facing the Troika as a choose-your-own-adventure book; needless to say, none of the outcomes are particularly palatable, although some are definitely worse than others.

The point here is that given political realities, there is literally no real solution to the Greece problem. The market attempted some kind of rally on the ECB news today, which on its face is weird — if the ECB takes its bonds out of the restructuring pile, then that just means a bigger haircut for everybody else, if Greece is going to reach debt sustainability. But the rally, if it was related to the news at all, was probably just relief that something is being done — that plan beats no plan. Which is probably overly hopeful. There might be a plan here, but equally there might not: this could be a purely defensive mechanism, protecting the ECB from a chaotic Greek default.

The most notable thing about the news, for me, was the utter lack of eyebrows which were raised when it happened. Everybody’s expecting the unorthodox at this point, to the degree that when it happens, no one seems to care very much. Or maybe it’s just that no one has a clue what’s going on. I was at a very wonky dinner this evening, talking details of CDS determination committee protocols and the like, when it struck me that the politicians making the decisions here are not financial sophisticates; many of them like the idea of the CDS not being triggered just because they think that means Greece won’t have defaulted.

In short, expect things to get weird from here on out. We are entering a zone of probability distributions at this point, where actions stop having foreseeable consequences. No one’s really in charge, which doesn’t help. Greece has sophisticated and professional advisers, but Greece isn’t in control of its own destiny; the Troika is. And the various members of the Troika are no longer singing from the same songbook. The ECB has partially protected itself, with this move; but in increasing the amount of preferred-creditor debt that Greece has, it has also increased Greece’s debt burden and hurt the credit quality of the debt that Greece owes the IMF, which is also a member of the Troika.

Go play Daniel’s game: if anything it’s an oversimplified presentation of the various ways that the Greek crisis might play out in the next few weeks. There’s nothing in there, for instance, about tensions between members of the Troika, or about bondholders holding out with a blocking stake and complicating things that way. Then, once you’re thoroughly confused and depressed, put yourself in the position of a European politician who has to make real-world decisions with real-world consequences. And ask yourself how predictable your actions might be. The endgame is approaching; but the only thing we know for sure about it is that anybody who thinks they know how it’s going to play out is delusional.

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