Felix Salmon

How Greece’s default could kill the sovereign CDS market

Felix Salmon
Feb 29, 2012 23:26 UTC

Alea today posts the timeline for physical settlement of credit default swaps, once a credit event has been declared. He doesn’t say why he’s posting it, but the main thing to note is that it’s likely to take a couple of months between (a) the credit event being declared in Greece, and (b) the final settlement of all credit default swaps on Greece.

And that, in turn, reveals a significant weakness in the architecture of CDS documentation. It may or may not be a big deal, this time round. But market participants have already been spooked by the possibility that Greece might be able to default without triggering its CDS at all. Now they can add to that another worry: that Greece might be able to default in such a manner as to leave the ultimate value of the CDS largely a matter of luck.

The way that CDS auctions work, you start with a credit event. Then, using an auction mechanism, the market works out what the cheapest bond of the defaulting issuer is worth. If it’s worth, say, 25 cents on the dollar, then people who wrote credit protection end up paying 75 cents to the people who bought protection: that’s equivalent to the people who bought protection getting 100 cents on the dollar, and handing their bonds over in return.

With Greece, however, the bond exchange is going to complicate things — a lot. Remember that it has a natural deadline: March 20, when a €14 billion principal payment comes due. If Greece’s old bonds haven’t been exchanged for new bonds by that point, then things will get even uglier, and even more chaotic, than anybody’s expecting right now. So it’s very much in Greece’s interest, and Europe’s more generally, to have everything wrapped up by March 20. Bondholders too, truth be told — they hate uncertainty.

But then there’s the CDS holders. In the best-case scenario for Greece and Europe and bondholders, every €1,000 of old Greek bonds will get converted to new bonds with a face value of just €315. Those bonds will probably trade at about 30% of face value, which means the new-Greek-bond component of the exchange will be worth about 10 cents for every dollar in face value of old Greek bonds that you might currently hold. Add in another 15 cents of EFSF bonds, and the total value of the exchange will be about 25 cents on the dollar, which is why people are talking about a 75% “present value haircut”.

The important thing, here, is that Greece is issuing new bonds worth around 10 cents on the dollar, while the EFSF is issuing new bonds worth around 15 cents on the dollar. The structure of the new Greek bonds is secondary: these ones involve a nominal haircut of 68.5%, and a market price of about 30 cents on the dollar. But theoretically, Greece could have constructed bonds with a significantly higher coupon and a bigger nominal haircut — maybe the haircut would be 85%, with the bonds trading at 67 cents on the dollar. Bondholders would still receive about €100 worth of new Greek bonds for every €1,000 of old Greek bonds they hold. But instead of the new Greek bonds trading at 30 cents, they’d trade at 67 cents.

Why does it matter what the nominal price of the new Greek bonds is, so long as the total package, including EFSF bonds, is worth about 25 cents on the dollar? Economically speaking, it doesn’t. But for the purposes of the CDS auction, it matters a great deal.

The reason is that the key number in the auction is the nominal value of the cheapest-to-deliver Greek bond — that’s the price at which the auction clears. And here’s the rub: this auction is going to take place after March 20, after the old Greek bonds have been exchanged into new securities. Because Greece intends to use collective action clauses to change the terms of all its outstanding bonds, even if they’re not tendered into the exchange, there effectively won’t be any old bonds in existence by the time the CDS auction happens. The only outstanding reference securities will be new bonds.

In the auction, market participants will not be bidding on the value of the package that is being offered in return for every old bond. The new EFSF bonds are obligations of the EFSF, for instance: they’re not obligations of Greece, and they have no place in a Greek CDS auction.

The way that CDS auctions are meant to work is that once a borrower defaults on its debt, that defaulted debt continues to be traded in the market, and its value then determines the amount that credit default swaps need to pay out. But in this case, Greece’s defaulted debt might well not continue to be traded in the market. In which case, when traders need to find a cheapest-to-deliver bond to bid on in the CDS auction, they’re going to have to use one of the new bonds, rather than one of the old ones.

And now you can see why the nominal price of the new Greek bonds is so important. Right now, it seems that they’ll be trading at a nominal price of about 30 cents on the dollar, which is close (ish) to the current market price of the old Greek debt. But there’s no particular reason why that should be the case. If Greece had gone for an 85% nominal haircut rather than a 68.5% nominal haircut, then the nominal price of the new Greek bonds would be 67 cents on the dollar — and anybody who wrote credit protection on Greece would only have to pay out 33 cents on the dollar rather than 70 cents on the dollar.

In other words, Greece’s CDS really aren’t protecting holders of Greek bonds at all — or if they do, it’s more a matter of luck than of law. When they get paid out on their CDS holdings, people owning protection against a Greek default won’t get paid according to how much money they lost on their old bonds. Instead, they’ll get paid according to the nominal price of the new bonds.

What this means is that the CDS architecture is broken, and can’t cope with collective action clauses. And as a result, according to the hedge fund manager who tipped me off to the whole problem, “this Greece CDS imbroglio might be the final blow for sovereign CDS as a product.”

Now there is a possible solution here: ISDA could try to decree, somehow, that the total package bondholders receive in return for their old bonds will count as a deliverable security for the purposes of the CDS auction. Bundle up the new bonds, the EFSF bonds, the GDP warrants, everything — and that bundle can be bid on in the auction, to determine where the CDS pays out. That would be fair and right. But the problem is, it might not be legal. There’s really nothing in the ISDA CDS documentation which explicitly allows that to happen.

The whole point about credit default swaps is that they’re meant to behave in a predictable manner in the event of default; one thing we know for sure about Greece is that the behavior of its CDS is going to be anything but predictable. We don’t even know for sure whether they’ll be triggered, let alone what they’ll be worth if and when they are.

Now there are a lot of people, among them European policymakers, who would actually be quite happy if the Greek default killed off the sovereign CDS market as a side effect. But I actually believe that sovereign CDS, when they work, are rather useful things. It’s just that Greece is having the effect of showing that they don’t necessarily work. And if you can’t be sure that they’ll work when triggered, there’s really no point in buying them at all.


The answer to this problem is straightforward: Invent a new product to serve as “insurance” (quotes to avoid its regulation like actual insurance, which requires capital) on the CDS in question.

More fees, more paper, more “robust” (in quotes because it means “without capital”) financial system.

Innovation will solve all problems. (I mean, “innovation.”)

Posted by Eericsonjr | Report as abusive

Greece’s default gets messier

Felix Salmon
Feb 28, 2012 19:47 UTC

Back on February 17, the European Central Bank sprinkled its magical pixie dust on its Greek sovereign bonds, with the effect that they effectively ended up exempt from the restructuring and haircut being inflicted on everybody else. I wasn’t very excited about this development at the time:

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.

Today, we’re beginning to get a hint of the messiness that this decision caused.

First, there’s a formal question which has been put to ISDA’s Determinations Committee, asking whether the ECB magical pixie dust, combined with the passage of the Greek law to allow the haircut, doesn’t in itself constitute a credit event under ISDA rules.

The question takes the form of a single 179-word sentence, which some lawyer somewhere probably thinks is very clever. But here’s the idea: the two events together have effectively cleaved the stock of Greek bonds into two parts, with one part (the bonds owned by the ECB) being effectively senior to the other part (the bonds owned by everybody else). This is known as Subordination, and Subordination is a credit event under ISDA rules.

Now there’s no doubt that the private sector’s Greek bonds are de facto subordinate to the ECB’s Greek bonds now, and that they weren’t subordinate a couple of weeks ago. But so far there’s nothing de jure about this subordination — there’s no intrinsic reason why bonds with CACs, for instance, should be subordinate to bonds without CACs. So my guess is that this request is going to go nowhere, and/or get overtaken by events.

But now there’s news that another European institution has managed to get its hands on the ECB’s magical pixie dust.

The European Investment Bank, owned by the 27-member bloc, is getting exemptions from Greek debt writedowns in the same way as the euro area’s central bank, according to two regional officials familiar with the matter.

The European Central Bank negotiated a deal to avoid the 53.5 percent loss on principal that’s costing private investors as much as 106 billion euros ($143 billion). The EIB, which unlike its Frankfurt-based counterpart represents the entire European Union, also owns Greece’s debt and is sidestepping the so-called haircut in the same way, said the officials, who declined to be identified because the plan isn’t public.

While the ECB exemption was understandable, on the grounds that the ECB was part of the Troika and the Troika is putting up new money here, an EIB exemption is less so. The EIB is not putting money into this latest Greece bailout. Indeed, it represents countries like the UK which are quite explicitly removing themselves from any such thing.

Now, admittedly, the European Commission is a member of the Troika, and the European Commission is the executive body of the European Union, and the European Union collectively owns the European Investment Bank. So this decision is, as the lawyers would say, colorable. But if the decision to exempt the ECB from the Greece haircut was ugly, then the decision to exempt the EIB is, at the margin, even uglier. I’m not saying it’s the wrong decision, necessarily. After all, sovereign restructurings necessarily have an ad hoc, make-it-up-as-you-go-along element to them.

Indeed, if the ECB’s magical pixie dust means that there’s substantially more EU support for this deal, then it might well be worth spreading it around a bit. But at the same time, predictability and consistency are important as well. And both of those seem to have gone out the window at this point. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if ISDA’s Determinations Committee just said “enough already” and declared an event of default. Because in recent weeks private-sector bondholders have been treated in an extremely cavalier manner. And those decisions have consequences.


I believe that a number of private creditors are holding back in order to force the CAC and a credit event if the ISDA does not rule in their favor.

What Europe has done is created a bifurcated market for European sovereign debt where public holders will be treated differently than private holders creating two risk profiles depending on who is the buyer.

This will cause European yields to rise in the private market as everyone takes into account this new angle to credit risk.

Honestly, if you have to get this cute in crafting a solution then it is not a viable solution.

Posted by dcurban1 | Report as abusive

Greece’s bond exchange: it’s official

Felix Salmon
Feb 24, 2012 18:32 UTC

If you go to the official website for the Greek bond exchange, greekbonds.gr, you can now find an actual official document! The rest of the website, it says, “will be available shortly”, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

The document gives us most — but not all — of the information that bondholders will need in order to be able to decide whether or not they’re going to tender their bonds into the exchange. It’s written in very dense legalese — the first sentence is 70 words long, with only one comma — so let me try to pull out the important bits.

This is complicated, as you might imagine. It makes a significant difference (a) what bonds you hold, whether they’re Greek law or English law, and also (b) where you live, whether it’s in Europe or in the US. (There are also, it turns out, Swiss-law bonds as well, which have their own very special treatment.) But at the end of the day, most bondholders are going to get pretty much the same things when they tender their bonds; you’ll forgive me for ignoring some of the more niggly stuff.

Firstly, they’re going to receive new Greek bonds, maturing in 2042. It doesn’t matter whether the bonds you’re holding mature on March 20, or whether they mature in 30 years’ time — everybody gets the same new long-dated bonds, according to the face value of what they now own. In other words, the value of Greek bonds right now is wholly a function of what their face value is, and has nothing to do with their coupon or their maturity date.

The new Greek bonds have a step-up coupon: 2% through 2015, then 3% through 2020, then 3.65% in 2021, and then 4.3% from 2022 through 2042. Bondholders will receive new bonds with a face value of €315 for every €1,000 of old bonds they hold. (Again, remember that it’s face value which matters here, not market price.) What’s the market price of the new bonds going to be? Not very much; my guess is that they’ll trade at roughly 40% of face value. Which means that the “NPV haircut”, as far as the new Greek obligations are concerned, is somewhere on the order of 87%.

But bondholders will get more than just Greek bonds; they will also get new EFSF notes. The new EFSF notes come in two flavors: one-year notes and two-year notes; their face value is going to be 15% of the face value of the tendered bonds. The working assumption right now is that they’re going to be worth €150 for every €1,000 of bonds tendered: in other words, if you look at the value of what bondholders are going to be receiving in exchange for their bonds, it’s going to be split roughly 50-50 between Greek bonds and EFSF notes.

We don’t know that for sure, however, because for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, the coupon on the EFSF notes is still undetermined; we’re just told that it will be revealed on the Issue Date. (And no, we’re not told what the Issue Date is going to be.) In any event, bondholders in the US won’t receive EFSF notes at all; instead, they’ll receive “the cash proceeds realized from the sale of the EFSF notes they would otherwise have received”.

Finally, bondholders will receive GDP warrants of some description, which are the vaguest thing of all. “The GDP-linked Securities will provide for annual payments beginning in 2015 of an amount of up to 1% of their notional amount in the event the Republic’s nominal GDP exceeds a defined threshold and the Republic has positive GDP growth in real terms in excess of specified targets.” How much are these warrants going to be worth? The working assumption has to be zero, at least until we get some numbers for the minimum GDP and GDP growth that Greece needs in order to pay out on them.

When bondholder tender their old bonds to receive new ones, two things will happen. First, the old bonds will have been accruing interest since their last coupon payment. That interest will not be paid out in cash; instead, it will be paid out in the form of six-month zero-coupon EFSF notes. Why? This is just stupid nickel-and-diming: is there any reason why the EFSF is better off paying that money in six months rather than just paying it now?

Second, the bondholders will almost certainly vote, when they tender their old bonds, to bail in everybody who doesn’t tender their bonds, and force them to accept the same deal. That’s the Collective Action Clause (CAC) that you might have been reading about.

Will the CACs be used? Will the exchange even happen? That depends entirely on how many bondholders decide to tender into the exchange. (We’ll assume for the time being that if you tender, you’ll also consent to implementing the CACs; there’s no obvious reason why anybody would do the former without doing the latter.)

In order for the CACs to even come into existence, let alone be triggered, Greece needs two-thirds of its old bonds to be tendered. If it doesn’t reach that threshold, then the whole exchange is a bust and won’t happen at all. Indeed, Greece says in this release that it won’t go ahead with the exchange unless it gets at least 75% participation. If fewer than 75% of Greece’s bondholders tender into the exchange, then Greece won’t accept those tenders, and we’ll have a chaotic default.

If more than 90% of Greece’s bonds are tendered, then the exchange will be a success, the CACs will be triggered, and Greece’s old bonds will be replaced by new bonds. And because the CACs will be triggered, you can be sure that CDS will be triggered as well.

And what happens if the participation rate is between 75% and 90%? That’s vaguer. In that case, says the press release, “the Republic, in consultation with its official sector creditors, may proceed to exchange the tendered bonds without putting any of the proposed amendments into effect”. Which seems to me to say that if you tender into the exchange then you’ll get new bonds, and if you don’t tender into the exchange then, um, well, you’ll be left with your old bonds. The implied threat here is that Greece will pay out on its new bonds but won’t pay out on its old bonds — and bondholders who didn’t participate in the exchange will be left with claims on the Greek government which they’ll be lucky to ever collect on. Of course the CDS would be triggered in that case, too — it would be a clear-cut default. But Greece would have a large outstanding stock of unpaid debt for the foreseeable future.

The idea here is to prevent would-be free-riders from holding out in the exchange, refusing to tender their bonds on the basis that if they hold out, then they’ll just get bailed in by the CACs anyway. That strategy works if there’s more than 90% participation, but it becomes very dangerous if there’s less than 90% participation.

Will this strategy be enough to get 90% of Greece’s bondholders to tender into the exchange? I suspect it might. And of course if the takeup is between 75% and 90% Greece still has the option of exercising the CACs and bailing everybody in anyway. (Note that “may” in the press release which I bolded.) Chances are, that’s what it would do: it’s better for Greece to have one series of bonds outstanding which it isn’t in default on, rather than lots of series of bonds outstanding where it’s in default on most of them. But we won’t know for sure until after the results of the bond exchange are made public. And we won’t even know what bondholders are thinking with respect to the terms of the exchange until we get more details on the GDP warrants and the coupon on the EFSF notes. When will that come? Your guess is as good as mine.


Why don’t the Greek government just replace all the legal BS – with the simple wording along the lines of:-

“Ha Ha – we’re a bunch of fraudsters and we’ve suckered you again – we have your money & you can’t get it back. We might give you some toilet paper in exchange. Now we’re going to gets lots of lovely free money from our fellow swindlers and liars the leaders of the 4th Reich. Of course we won’t pay it back – you the peasants and suckers will do that for us”

Posted by mgb500 | Report as abusive

The epistemics of Greek default

Felix Salmon
Feb 22, 2012 15:40 UTC

Are you alarmed by today’s headline in the NYT saying, disturbingly, that the “Greek Crisis Raises New Fears Over Credit-Default Swaps”? Don’t be. The article in question turns out to be a solid 770-word explainer by Peter Eavis in which he gives the final word to Stanford’s Darrell Duffie, saying that any such fears are “small potatoes”.

But at the beginning, Eavis talks about how European policymakers “fear that payments on the swaps might set off destabilizing chain reactions through Europe’s financial system”; later on, he writes that “the swaps will also come under heavy fire if there is any indication that activating the Greek instruments is leading to stress in the financial system”. It would have been nice if he’d named one of those policymakers, or explained what exactly their fears might be.

How, exactly, would a CDS trigger lead to stress in the financial system? After all, as Eavis concedes, every time banks’ balance sheets have been examined, regulators have found essentially nothing in the way of unhedged CDS exposures.

There is the possibility of counterparty risk — a spectre Eavis raises only to dismiss it. In order for counterparty risk to be a problem, you need two things. First, you need a bank with a very large unhedged CDS exposure to one single name — the kind of position I’ve never seen any bank have. (Remember here that credit default swaps were invented for banks to sell down their loan exposure, not to increase it.) And then, on top of that, you need jump risk: the risk that the single name in question will suddenly default, forcing the bank to pay out a huge amount of money at once.

But in Greece, there is no jump risk at all. Because a default has been priced in for months, any bank which has written default protection on Greece has had to steadily post more and more margin against that position. When Greece officially defaults at the end of March, there will be an auction to determine the clearing price of the swaps, and the margin will simply get transferred to the bank’s counterparty. The bank will probably need to make no payment at all.

In other words, counterparty risk on sovereign CDS is probably a non-issue, but it’s certainly a non-issue in Greece.

So what are the “new fears” of Eavis’s headline? I’m beginning to think that in fact the fears are not that the swaps will get triggered, causing some kind of financial calamity, but rather that they won’t be:

Some chance remains that the exchange could be done voluntarily, avoiding a default swap event. That outcome would most likely prompt a torrent of criticism that the swaps did not cover holders against losses, as they were intended to.

“The whole nature of the C.D.S. contract would be called into question,” said Richard Portes, professor of economics at the London Business School.

As Eavis says, the chance of the swaps not being triggered is extremely small, at this point. But it’s higher than the chance that the trigger will cause some kind of financial-market calamity. It’s possible — unlikely, but possible — that Greece will get such a large acceptance rate on its exchange offer that the size of the holdouts would be very small indeed. If that happens, it’s also possible-but-unlikely that Greece will choose to simply continue paying those holdouts in full, rather than defaulting on them or trying to bail them into the deal through CACs. If both of those possible-but-unlikely things happen, then it’s definitely possible ISDA would determine that there was no credit event. But we’re so far down the chain of speculation at this point that these things are really not worth worrying about; the unanimous consensus in the market is that there will be a default, in March, and that the CDS will get triggered.

The thing that really worries me is not the CDS market at all. In fact, for all that credit default swaps were an intrinsic part of the financial crisis, the traded market in CDS has been remarkably robust. It certainly withstood the bankruptcy of Lehman without any trouble, both in terms of counterparty risk relating to Lehman’s own positions and in terms of CDS on Lehman being triggered when the bank failed.

Rather, what worries me is that the vast majority of people reading this article in the NYT will see the headline about New Fears, and if they skim the article will just see a bunch of concerns and some quotes from people on both sides. In other words, Eavis’s article is to a large degree self-fulfilling: people will read it and start being worried about the CDS market all over again, especially if — like 99% of the population — they don’t really understand the CDS market at all, and have no particular need or desire to get into the nitty-gritty. All they know, or think they know, is that credit default swaps are Dangerous Complex Derivatives, and that the Greek crisis is making them more dangerous still.

Meanwhile, Eavis never touches on what I’m pretty sure is the real reason that European policymakers are worried about a CDS trigger. A lot of people have been asking me about the Greek deal in recent days and weeks, and I get a lot of questions like the one I was asked yesterday by Amanda Lang, who asked whether default was in fact inevitable and whether Greece was just putting it off with this deal, kicking the can down the road. A lot of otherwise very well-informed people still think that this bailout is like previous bailouts, designed to avert a default. When in fact a huge default is right at its very heart. When the CDS get triggered, it’s going to be very obvious that this is indeed a Greek default. That’s something which bond market professionals are acutely aware of, but it hasn’t really sunk in to the broader popular consciousness.

If the Greeks and the Europeans can structure a deal where the credit default swaps aren’t triggered and the bondholders voluntarily swap their old bonds for new bonds, then it’s actually possible that this misunderstanding could continue well past the bond exchange, to the point that the broad public thinks that we’ve just seen another bailout, and misses the footnote that the bailout was accompanied by the single largest bond default in the history of the world.

If all goes according to plan, this is going to be an orderly bond default, to be sure — in contrast to the very disorderly defaults we’ve seen in recent years in countries like Argentina and Ecuador. But make no mistake: Ecuador Greece owes €14 billion to its bondholders on March 20. It is not going to make that payment, and instead bondholders who are currently owed 100 cents on March 20 will find themselves instead with a mixture of securities worth maybe 26 cents on the open market. When the CDS get triggered, that fact is going to get hammered home. Because although it has long been priced in to the market, it still isn’t broadly understood.


dWj, they will of course sue the bank that they bet with for failing to disclose something irrelevent….

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Europe’s inevitable Greek divorce

Felix Salmon
Feb 22, 2012 07:04 UTC

I had a little bit of fun amidst all the seriousness on Canadian TV yesterday, laying out my genius solution to the Greek crisis: Canadians. (My segment starts at about 19:20 in.) Essentially, Germany wants Greeks to become German: to stoically accept real wage deflation while working hard and paying their taxes in a good Protestant manner. Canadians are well-educated, productive, and very good at paying their taxes; what’s more, they’d probably like somewhere warmer to live, especially in the winter. So bring all the Canadians to Greece, where they could help turn the economy around, and leave Canada to the commodity companies and the Chinese property speculators. It’s basically the Davos to Greece idea, taken to its logical conclusion.

Underneath it all is the simple truth that economic growth is caused by people. Ever since the Eurozone was created, Europe has been quite clear about the fact that economic and monetary union can’t work without labor mobility. But sadly, the ability of Europeans to work in any EU country has meant an outflow of skilled professionals from Greece, when what it really needs is an inflow.

If you really want structural reform in Greece, a lot of that is going to have to come from new blood — northern European entrepreneurs and corporations setting up shop in Greece to take advantage of the large supply and low cost of labor there, as well as all the advantages of being both in the EU and in the Mediterranean. But that’s not going to happen so long as you read stories like this one, about how it took ten months to get permission to launch a website selling olive-oil-based products to the US market.

Antonopoulos and his partners spent hours collecting papers from tax offices, the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the municipal service where the company is based, the health inspector’s office, the fire department and banks. At the health department, they were told that all the shareholders of the company would have to provide chest X-rays, and, in the most surreal demand of all, stool samples.

Once they climbed the crazy mountain of Greek bureaucracy and reached the summit, they faced the quagmire of the bank, where the issue of how to confirm the credit card details of customers ended in the bank demanding that the entire website be in Greek only.

When politicians talk about “structural reform” in Greece, they mean cutting out a lot of this kind of red tape. But that takes time, which Greece doesn’t have. Besides, you need some kind of financial system to support new businesses, and Greece’s banks are barely lending at this point.

The really big picture here is that European monetary union is a marriage — and not a happy one, right now. In any marriage, if one partner falls on hard times, it’s incumbent upon the other to support them. If they can’t, or won’t, then divorce is surely in the cards. Similarly, if one partner doesn’t trust the other, then the marriage will not last long. The latest Greek bailout is being sold with the idea that Europe will support Greece indefinitely, and trusts Greece to do everything it’s promised. Neither passes the laugh test. And so, rather than moving to Greece to help rebuild its economy, the rest of Europe will ultimately split up with its noncontiguous partner. The only question is when.


“wait a sec, TFF, you’re not suggesting Whitman is an entrepreneur?”

Sorry, KenG, I realized after I posted that I was conflating two ideas. :) No, not an entrepreneur. But she sprung to mind as an East Coast transplant!

And yes, Boston is at the same latitude as Rome. Same daylight hours, just a little more snow. :)

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

The improbable Greece plan

Felix Salmon
Feb 21, 2012 06:16 UTC

Greece is now officially a ward of the international community. It has no real independence when it comes to fiscal policy any more, and if everything goes according to plan, it’s not going to have any independence for many, many years to come. Here, for instance, is a little of the official Eurogroup statement:

We therefore invite the Commission to significantly strengthen its Task Force for Greece, in particular through an enhanced and permanent presence on the ground in Greece… The Eurogroup also welcomes the stronger on site-monitoring capacity by the Commission to work in close and continuous cooperation with the Greek government in order to assist the Troika in assessing the conformity of measures that will be taken by the Greek government, thereby ensuring the timely and full implementation of the programme. The Eurogroup also welcomes Greece’s intention to put in place a mechanism that allows better tracing and monitoring of the official borrowing and internally-generated funds destined to service Greece’s debt by, under monitoring of the troika, paying an amount corresponding to the coming quarter’s debt service directly to a segregated account of Greece’s paying agent.

The problem, of course, is that all the observers and “segregated accounts” in the world can’t turn Greece’s economy around when it’s burdened with an overvalued currency and has no ability to implement any kind of stimulus. Quite the opposite: in order to get this deal done, Greece had to find yet another €325 million in “structural expenditure reductions”, and promise a huge amount of front-loaded austerity to boot.

The effect of all this fiscal tightening? Magic growth! A huge amount of heavy lifting, in terms of making the numbers work, is done by the debt sustainability analysis, and specifically the assumptions it makes. Greece is five years into a gruesome recession with the worst effects of austerity yet to hit. But somehow the Eurozone expects that Greece will bounce back to zero real GDP growth in 2013, and positive real GDP growth from 2014 onwards. Here’s the chart:


Note that the downside, here, still looks astonishingly optimistic: where’s all this economic growth meant to be coming from, in a country suffering from massive wage deflation? And under this pretty upbeat downside scenario, Greece gets nowhere near the required 120% debt-to-GDP level by 2020: instead, it only gets to 159%. And to make things worse for the Eurozone, the report explicitly says that under the terms of this deal, “any new debt will be junior to all existing debt” — in other words, there’s no way at all that Greece is going to be able to borrow on the private markets for the foreseeable future, so long as this plan is in place.

As in all bankruptcies, the person providing new money gets to call the shots. And it’s pretty clear that the Troika is going to have to continue providing new money long through 2020 and beyond. Under the optimistic scenario, Greece’s financing need doesn’t drop below 7% of GDP through 2020. Under the more pessimistic scenario, it’s 8.8%. And here’s the kicker: all of that money is being lent to Greece at very low interest rates of just 210bp over the risk-free rate. Much higher, and Greece’s debt dynamics get even worse. But of course even with well-below-market interest rates, Greece is still never going to pay that money back.

The cost of this plan is €130 billion right now, and €170 billion over three years, through the end of 2014; it just continues going up from there, with no end in sight. Remember that total Greek GDP, right now, is only about €220 billion and falling.

Oh, and in case you forgot, this whole plan is also contingent on a bunch of things which are outside the Troika’s control, including a successful bond exchange. The terms of the deal, for Greek bondholders, are tough: there’s a nominal haircut of 53.5%, which means that you get 46.5 cents of new debt for every dollar of existing bonds that you hold. The new debt will be a mixture of EFSF obligations and new Greek bonds; the new Greek debt will pay just 3% interest through 2020, and 3.75% until maturity in 2042.

The plan assumes that 95% of bondholders will accept this deal, which seems optimistic to me. Bondholders are by their nature a fractious and contrarian bunch, and Greece is not saying that it’s going to default on holdouts. As a result, bondholders have to guess what might happen if they fail to tender into the exchange: they might get defaulted on and receive nothing; they might get paid out in full; or they might get defaulted on while being offered, for the second time, the same exchange they’re being offered right now. Some of them, especially the ones holding English-law bonds, might well be tempted to hold on to at least some of their bonds, just to see what happens.

More to the point, the plan assumes that Greece’s politicians will stick to what they’ve agreed, and start selling off huge chunks of their country’s patrimony while at the same time imposing enormous budget cuts. Needless to say, there is no indication that Greece’s politicians are willing or able to do this, nor that Greece’s population will put up with such a thing. It could easily all fall apart within months; the chances of it gliding to success and a 120% debt-to-GDP ratio in 2020 have got to be de minimis.

Europe’s politicians know this, of course. But at the very least they’re buying time: this deal might well delay catastrophic capital flight from Greece, and give the Europeans more time to work out how to shore up Portugal if and when that happens. Will they make good use of the time that they’re buying? I hope so. Because once the Greek domino falls, it’s going to take a huge amount of money, statesmanship, and luck to prevent further dominoes from toppling.


1. No one forced Greece into the Euro. Greece forced itself in.
2. No one forced Greece to keep up an arms race with Turkey. That is, and was Greece’s decision.
3. No one forced Greece to overborrow. That was Greece’s decision.
4. No one forces Greece to stay in the Euro. Greece can default completely and exit the Euro.
5. But Greece cannot expect the rest of the EU to keep paying for its bad decisions.

Posted by Staufer | Report as abusive

The Greece game turns chaotic

Felix Salmon
Feb 17, 2012 06:18 UTC

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.


PSI and OSI with ecb participation is a must, there’s not enough money saved on the cut.

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Greece is broken, and can’t be fixed

Felix Salmon
Feb 15, 2012 17:01 UTC

As Mohamed El-Erian says, the broken dynamics surrounding Greece right now are extremely reminiscent of what was happening in Argentina in 2001. New money is necessary, but it’s also insufficient; it all feels like some kind of Samuel Beckett-style existential paradox. You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

To provide a bit of context here, look at the amount that the Greek economy has already shrunk: 16%. That compares to 20%, peak-to-trough, in Argentina, and 29% in the US in the Great Depression. But the big problem in Greece is that the worst economic effects of austerity haven’t even happened yet.

“On the current path – which is not sustainable in my view – we may very well see Greek GDP go down 25-30 percent, which would be historically unprecedented. It’s a disastrous crisis for them,” Dadush, a former senior World Bank official, said…

“They’re suffering. It’s nasty,” said Weisbrot, who has studied the lessons to be learned from economic crises in Latvia and Argentina. “If you could say with a reasonable probability that the worst was over, then that would be different. But you can’t say that. They’re in for a long nightmare.”

The point here is that both Europe and Greece need a light at the end of the tunnel. Without that, social unrest in Greece will only get worse, the credibility of its promises will continue to deteriorate, and the Europeans will be understandably reluctant to throw good money after bad. And right now that light does not exist. Greece probably can’t implement the austerity package it’s promising, and even if it does, GDP won’t start growing to the point at which its debt-to-GDP ratio will come down to a remotely sustainable level. Which brings me to El-Erian:

First, they should stop repeating the claim that there is no “Plan B.” Telling people that there is no alternative to a discredited policy merely pushes them either to resist an approach that does not work, or to opt for mayhem. Recent official remarks heard in Greece (“We must show that Greeks, when they are called on to choose between the bad and the worst, choose the bad to avoid the worst”) do little to engender hope.

The lesson of what happened in Argentina should be top of mind:

After the Argentine parliament approved yet another new austerity package, the IMF agreed to release its financing tranche. But it was too late to save a discredited approach, further undermining the Fund’s standing.

Indeed, rather than engendering confidence, Argentine citizens withdrew their bank deposits over the next few months. Capital flight accelerated. The government again failed to deliver on its policy commitments. Most important of all, social and political pressures mounted, reaching a tipping point.

One of the weirder aspects of the Greek crisis is the way in which deposits in Greek banks have not fled the country. Many have, but Greeks still have something in the region of €150 billion on deposit in Greek banks. (I’m pretty sure that non-Greek deposits in Greek banks are de minimis.) If history repeats itself — and there’s no reason to believe that it won’t — that’s going to change.

There will be some kind of muddle-through bailout deal which allows Greece to do a bond exchange before its €14 billion bond coupon comes due on March 20. But the new money coming into Greece from the Troika will be less than the amount of money flowing out of Greek banks, and the lack of credit and liquidity in the country will only exacerbate the current depression and increase the number and severity of riots. Eventually, Greece will tip, and will leave the euro in a chaotic manner. I’m thinking late summer.

That’s not a Plan B anybody really wants. Greece’s budget deficit doesn’t disappear when it exits the euro, which means that it will have no real choice but to print new drachmas to cover that deficit. (Certainly no one outside Greece is going to lend the government new money at that point.) As a result, there will be a spiral of devaluation and inflation in Greece. Nominal GDP growth never felt so bad.

Is there a Plan C? Is there a real alternative? I think that there probably isn’t. El-Erian talks in a vague way about “economic restructuring”, “institutional changes”, and “policy flexibility” — all of which is code for the kind of deep-seated economic reform that Germany went through under Gerhard Schroder. That involved a combination of falling real wages and popular unhappiness in the context of a fundamentally strong and growing economy running a large current-account surplus. It also took many years, without real guarantees that it was going to work.

Greece doesn’t have that kind of leadership, partly because its population has no good reason to believe that such reforms would work or be at all effective in increasing national competitiveness. On top of that, it’s trying to act from a position of weakness rather than strength, and in any case it simply doesn’t have the time to implement changes which involve a fundamental restructuring of the nation’s social compact, including the population’s willingness to pay taxes.

Which is why I feel that what we’re seeing right now is the playing-out of the endgame in Greece. It reminds me in a way of the fiscal debate within the Obama administration, where the Christy Romer faction wanted “naked stimulus” without worrying too much about cuts down the road, while the Peter Orszag faction wanted “coupled stimulus” where short-term spending was offset by long-term budget cuts and revenue hikes. Basically everybody in the administration wanted stimulus, of one form or another — but that’s exactly what they didn’t get.

Similarly, in Greece, if you look at the various players — bondholders, the European Commission, the Greek government, the Greek population — all of them want Greece to stay in the euro. I have a feeling they’re all going to be very, very disappointed.


Greece can recover soon from financial crisis.

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Rubber ducks explain the Greek negotiations

Felix Salmon
Feb 10, 2012 01:40 UTC

Is there really a done deal in Greece? I hope so — but it’s pretty clear that nothing’s in the bag quite yet. In terms of my video above, the Greeks consider themselves in the boat at this point — but the Europeans worry that the Greeks might go back on their promises, so they want not only the Greek executive but also the Greek legislature to sign on. (I didn’t even have a duck for the Greek legislature, I thought the only legislatures we needed to worry about were in Germany and Finland.)

And the IMF duck isn’t in the boat either — Christine Lagarde, too, is demanding further “assurances Greece would stick to the agreed policies whatever the outcome of looming elections”.

It seems that the bondholders are in the boat, however — or as far in the boat as they can credibly get absent a formal bond exchange offer. And that’s why I’m not sold on Floyd Norris’s idea that the money Europe is providing for Greece will instead end up in an escrow account, to be used first to pay bondholders and only second to cover the Greek budget deficit.

If that were the case, the value of the exchange offer would rise markedly: the new bonds would certainly be repaid, and would be worth 100 cents on the dollar, rather than the 60 cents or less that everybody’s expecting right now. It would be a multi-billion-dollar gift to bondholders who expect much less than that, in a context where a few billion dollars could well make the difference between a successful deal and a failed one. If there’s effectively going to be an EU/IMF guarantee of the new Greek bonds, then the nominal haircut would surely be bigger than 50%, and I haven’t heard anything along those lines.

Basically, what’s going on here is that because the bondholders are already in the boat, no one needs to do them any favors. What’s needed is an agreement between Greece and the Troika — something acceptable to both sides, and which the Troika believes that Greece will hold to. Even as sensible people like Mohamed El-Erian can see clearly that that’s not going to happen. “I suspect all three parties to the negotiations know in their heart that their latest agreement, brave as it is, will only last a few months at best,” he writes. “Within a few months, the negotiating parties are likely to be back at the table bickering while Greece continues to stare into the abyss.”

Or, to put it another way, that overloaded pirate ship is very precarious. And even if it manages to get everybody on board now — which is far from certain — it could still easily capsize a few months down the road.


TFF, which is why in a democracy no one ever votes for it….

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