Understanding Greece’s default

By Felix Salmon
March 1, 2012

First, apologies for how Greece-heavy this blog is these days. There are other things going on out there, I’m sure. But we’re going through the largest sovereign default in the history of the world, and surprisingly few people — including senior European policymakers and journalists who are covering it professionally — really seem to understand what’s going on.

At the WSJ, for instance, the news story on today’s official ISDA determination (“Greek Deal Won’t Trigger CDS Payouts, Panel Says”) is bad; the blog post about it by Charles Forelle (“ISDA’s Greek Ruling Not the Last Word”) is very good.

And in Europe, the range of sophistication within policymaking circles is even greater. At the lowest, most basic level, one finds a feeling that it’s a Bad Thing if a European sovereign nation were ever to default, and so therefore it would be a good thing if the bond exchange was organized so that there was no official market determination of default. (Never mind that Greece is already in selective default on its bonds, according to S&P.)

At a slightly higher level of sophistication one finds the short-sellers-are-bad crowd, who don’t like CDS because they allow hedge funds to easily bet against countries. If the messy Greek CDS situation helps to reduce the amount of trust that the markets have in sovereign CDS generally, then so much the better, on this view.

And then, finally, there’s Peter Eavis’s conspiracy theory: if the Greek bond exchange goes really smoothly, and the sun rises in the morning and Italian bond yields stay below 5%, then maybe that’s the most worrying outcome of all. Because at that point Greece will have managed to wipe out, at a stroke, debt amounting to some 54% of GDP. You can see how Portugal and Ireland might be a little jealous. You don’t want to make sovereign default too easy — not least because it would do extremely nasty things to European banks’ balance sheets.

That said, Greece has now broken the sovereign-default taboo; many countries both inside and outside Europe have way too much debt; and now that debt relief is an option for politicians to seriously consider, it’s pretty much certain that at some point another European government will end up choosing that option.

So it’s extremely important for European politicians and voters generally to really understand what’s going on here, rather than just a relative handful of financial-market sophisticates. Greece’s default was a drastic move, and Europe has semi-officially said that it was a mistake: once we’re done with Greece, they’ve said, we’re not going to ask any other European country to similarly write down its private debt.

But the cat’s out of the bag now. Greece had no choice but to default. Portugal and Ireland do now have the choice. And while the cost of default is large, so is the cost of carrying a whopping great debt load. It’s up to the leaders and voters of those countries to determine which is the least bad option.

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