Thursday, October 27, 2011

The EU's New Bailout: Who's the Sugar Daddy?

The EU's new bailout plan may be a somewhat clever bit of financial engineering. But one wonders if it isn't too clever by half.

For political purposes, holders of Greek debt "voluntarily" agreed to 50% haircuts, giving Greece about 100 billion Euros (or $140 billion) of debt relief. It's important that the haircut be deemed voluntary, or credit default swap counterparties (i.e., insurers against a Greek default) would have to make payments to holders of Greek debt. Such payments could make the contagion spread farther out into the financial system and financing costs for other weak EU member nations could rise. Plagues are harder to contain the wider they extend, so preventing this deal from triggering a requirement for CDS payments was deemed essential.

How voluntary the haircut is depends on how much you avert your eyes. With the heads of the German and French governments directly "discussing" the issue with them, Greek debt holders may have received considerable official guidance as to where their hearts and minds lay. Since most Greek bonds are held by banks that are "volunteering," those banks won't seek payment under their CDS contracts. The nonbank holders of Greek debt could do so, but they don't hold so much that they couldn't be paid off in full if necessary without disturbing the waters tumultuously.

Of course, CDS dealers may be alarmed tonight. If CDS holders can't recover in a scenario such as today's, there would be little incentive for them to continue buying CDS's, and the CDS market could collapse. Some might think that would be a good thing. While most financial industry bigwigs, economists and politicians would say that the connectedness of the world's economy and financial system is good, there can be too much of a good thing. With so much of the international financial services industry devoted to shifting risk around, instead of helping real businesses raise capital, it's reasonable to ask whether financial interconnection has been taken too far.

But we digress. The haircut banks will take on Greek debt will be softened. Greece will issue 100 billion Euros of new debt for the remaining 50% of the old debt that isn't being written off. This new debt will be supported by 30 billion Euros (or some $42 billion) provided by the EU as collateral. In other words, the EU is absorbing 30% of any losses on the new debt. But where will the EU get this 30 billion Euros? The EU's rules preclude central bank printing of money.

That leaves you-know-who to foot the bill.

The big banks in the EU will be required to boost their capital by a combined 100 billion Euros (or $140 billion) over the next eight months. This should help create a firewall around the EU sovereign debt crisis, and hopefully prevent it from spreading beyond the weak nations that are already on the ropes. One minor detail, though: where will the 100 billion Euros come from? Although EU banks might be required to refrain from paying dividends, and try to issue new stock to raise capital, it's doubtful they can put together 100 billion Euros in the next eight months. With the tens of billions of losses these banks are facing from Greek and other debt, they may not have that much in the way of profits to add to capital. And what legion of private investors would want stock of the pigs in a poke that the EU's banks have become?

That leaves you-know-who to recapitalize the EU's sick banks.

The third component of the new EU bailout is the leveraging of the remaining uncommitted 250 billion Euros in the EU's bailout facility created last year, the EFSF. Apparently, this money will be used to guarantee 20% to 25% of the value of new bonds to be issued to replace dodgy debt of shaky EU members. Because of the guarantee, it is hoped that bond vigilantes will accept lower interest rates on the new debt that will alleviate the financing costs of the spendthrift nations that are dragging down the EU. In theory, this isn't a bad idea. All we need now is a trillion or so Euros (or about $1.4 trillion) to invest in the new leveraged bonds.

Rumor has it that China and Brazil might help to bail out the EU. China has a $6 trillion GDP and Brazil's is $2 trillion. It's hard to envision these two developing nations trying to explain to their own less well-off citizens why anything approaching $1.4 trillion of their wealth should go to bail out the much wealthier citizens of the EU. China may kick in a few tens of billions, Brazil somewhat less. But that would leave well over a $1 trillion to go.

Politics prevent the U.S. from directly providing any assistance. The IMF, with a balance sheet in the range of $400 billion, couldn't bite off a real big chaw of the needed $1 trillion plus. And with the effectiveness of CDS's to offset default risk now in question, what army of private investors would touch these puppies with a ten-foot pole? Perhaps the EU's banks could be persuaded to "voluntarily" buy some of this sh . . . stuff. But at this point, the EU's banks aren't much more than conduits for losses to fall on you-know-who.

That leaves you-know-who to pick up the tab.

Taxpayers of the wealthy EU nations may be approaching a state of bailout fatigue. Add up the $42 billion in collateral for new Greek bonds, $140 billion for bank recapitalization, and $1 trillion or more for leveraged bonds, and you get $1.2 trillion plus. The good burghers of Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and the other wealthy EU nations will, at a minimum, scowl deeply when they realize what the new EU's new bailout means. Perhaps they'll cough up the money. Then again, when this much is involved, they may balk.

Without solid sources of funding, the EU's new bailout is the same as the emperor's new clothes. Clever financial engineering doesn't amount to jack if there isn't enough funding to make it work. And even if you look high and low, it's hard to find the EU's sugar daddy.

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