Opinion

James Saft

Greek actors seek divorce from reality

June 14, 2011

James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Greece, Germany and the European Central Bank appear to be petitioning for a divorce, not from each other, yet, but from reality, citing irreconcilable differences.

As in all such divorces, reality will get by far the best end of the settlement and it will be the children, or should that be the citizens, who suffer.

Greece, shut out of the capital markets, needs money, and soon, and is willing to play along with the fiction that the next tranche of aid, perhaps 90 billion euros, from the European Union, International Monetary Fund and ECB will buy them enough time.

The ECB, which is up to its eyeballs in exposure to Greek debt, steadfastly maintains that it won’t countenance a soft restructuring, or default, presumably because it fears this will be too much for it, the banks, and the global financial markets to bear.

Germany, however, is insisting on just that; it maintains that the private sector will have to bear some of the costs, and while there is much discussion about “soft” restructurings featuring debt repayment extensions, no one has credibly explained how the private sector can take its lumps without it being considered a default.

Standard & Poor’s on Monday slashed Greece’s debt rating to CCC, the lowest rating it currently has on any nation, saying what is obvious to everyone outside this particular marriage, which is that it just isn’t working any more.

“In our view Greece is increasingly likely to restructure its debt in a manner that, under the conditions of any package of additional funding provided by Greece’s official creditors, would result in one or more defaults under our criteria,” S&P wrote about its move.

“We are also of the view that risks for the implementation of Greece’s EU/IMF borrowing program are rising, given Greece’s increased financing needs and ongoing internal political disagreements surrounding the policy conditions required by Greece’s partners.”

The ECB has perhaps 40-50 billion euros’ worth of Greek bonds on its balance sheet, and has lent about another 90 billion or so to Greek banks. It has threatened, in the event of a restructuring, to stop accepting Greek debt as collateral, a move that would be tantamount to cratering the entire Greek banking system at once. This would also deal sharp losses to the many euro zone national central banks which are exposed, potentially causing some to need additional capital.

By destroying the Greek bank sector, the ECB would, quite possibly, effect the exit of Greece from the euro zone. Depositors in Greek banks understand this, and have been withdrawing funds. Two-year deposits fell 8 percent from a year ago in April, and savings deposits fell by 16 percent, according to Bank of Greece data.

PLAYING CHICKEN

Given all of this, it seems likely that the ECB will relent, though in doing so they will seriously impair their credibility.

Even if the ECB relents and decides that it will not be the one dealing death to Greek banks in the event of a default, what then? This is the problem with Germany’s position, which rightly demands private sector participation but isn’t nearly radical enough to actually get Greece out from under.

A Greek default, under the terms currently being debated, may turn out to be the worst of outcomes. It will raise the possibility of global market fragility without putting Greece on a sound footing. For example, though most direct exposure to Greece is held by European banks, there would be a high price to pay for U.S. institutions which have been selling default insurance on Greece. Economist Kash Mansori estimates that U.S. institutions would actually bear more of the total losses than German ones, a state of play which perhaps partly explains German hardball tactics.

The terrible irony is that even if the parties can agree a course, none of the courses they seem likely to agree will leave Greece able in two years’ time to fend for itself. That mooted 30 billion euros of private sector burden sharing is just a down-payment. And of course, as soon as Greece defaults, the eyes of the market would immediately turn to Portugal, Ireland and even Spain.

The problem with the European approach to its weak states is that the scope has been too narrow. Rather than figuring out how to keep Greece upright without knocking over the banks, they would have been far better off figuring out how to actually make the banking system solvent and sound given Greek insolvency. That would involve huge private sector losses, inevitably, but might just have laid the groundwork for sustainable growth.

Instead we will have a sinking euro and waves of deflationary force coming out of Europe.

(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.)

Comments
5 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

The ECB needs to think ‘outside the box’ and decide what sort of Eurozone it wants in future. A weak unstable zone that includes Greece, Ireland, Portugal and others or a stable Eurozone that can put today’s troubles behind it and concentrate on closer fiscal and political integration? Big decisions are needed now. They should include the removal of the PIIGS ( or Germany and the stronger nations to Eurozone mark 11 )with all of the trauma that it will involve. This will involve massive upheaval in the short term but that is better than long term paralysis. It isn’t working now and it will not work in future under the current structure. The pain we suffer now will go on and on.

Posted by pavlaki | Report as abusive
 

Never worry, never fear! Robin Hood will soon be here.

Posted by G_Hiotis | Report as abusive
 

Loaning more bailout money to Greece will only make the final collapse a larger one. Tiding them over in the short run does not result in Greece surviving as it is in the long run since the size of the debt at the current interest rates is unsustainable. There isn’t enough income to pay the interest let alone the actual debt. They have to default and restructure at 50%. The only way to do this is for Greece to leave the Euro and return to the Drachma. Then it can devalue by 50% and print ‘funny money’ just as the big-boys (ie the US and UK) do. Continuing to play the ‘bailout’ game will only postpone the inevitable.

Posted by Eric93 | Report as abusive
 

A perfect storm is coalescing. The U.S. Congress has been playing chicken with the dollar and U.S. debt instruments at a time when the PIIGS are faltering and China’s economy is weakening. Seems like the stuff of a catastrophic global financial meltdown.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive
 

I’m tending to agree with SanPa. Money on the sidelines, waiting for the summer doldrums to play out, may need to stay there. Also, I would suggest that any US institutions without guns to their heads, that sold insurance against Greek default, richly deserve what they get.

Posted by igiveup | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •