Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Fools Among the Holders of Greek Debt

A couple of months ago, most holders of Greek government debt reluctantly agreed to a deal to take a loss (called a "haircut" by the financial cognoscenti) of about 75% of the nominal (i.e., face) value of the debt as part of the second bailout package offered to Greece by the EU. Another aspect of that deal was the Greek government would institute austerity measures in order to reduce its future need for debt. The coalition government then governing Greece, a pushmi-pullyu shotgun marriage of two opposing parties, solemnly agreed to the austerity measures.

Just a couple of days ago, Greek voters gave the coalition government something like a machine gun divorce, placing bootprints on the behinds of the coalition parties and effectively putting a Communist politician in the position of calling the shots. It's been decades since Communists in any democratic nation have had a scintilla of political power. But there's never a dull moment with the ongoing economic and financial crisis.

Needless to say, the Communist leader, Alexi Tsipras, isn't of a mind to embrace austerity. He does say he wants Greece to remain in the Euro zone. And why not? Since the beginning of the EU sovereign debt crisis, Greek governments have made promises about fiscal probity and austerity, gotten promises of bailouts, not quite fully lived up to their promises to throttle back spending, and gotten bailed out anyway because the wealthy EU nations always blinked first. The Greek Communists might as well play the same game, and take credit for any blinks they can induce.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, those holders of Greek debt who agreed to the 75% haircut must be wondering how foolish they now look to the people on whose behalf they manage money. It's well understood that there is political risk associated with speculating in sovereign debt. Politicians will, when push comes to shove, favor their constituents over money managers in the top 1%. Nevertheless, professional financiers dabbling in sovereign debt are supposed to be able to assess political risk astutely. Just two months after the second bailout deal, they've lost the benefit of their bargain because of a political risk that was staring them in the face when they agreed to the haircut.

Private investors will be reluctant to play in the EU sovereign debt sandbox in the future. It's not a winning strategy to take a big haircut and then find out two months later that you have to deal with a newly risen Communist politician.

With the evaporation of private investment interest in the sovereign debt of weaker EU nations, the European Union will have a problem. A fairly large one, in fact. Its member nations can't function without debt. But, with natural investors unwilling to lend their savings, EU sovereign debt (at least for the weaker member nations) would have to be financed by the European Central Bank. The ECB would protest that this violates the letter and spirit of its charter. But what choice will it have? The EU doesn't have a mechanism for defenestrating a member nation, however badly it behaves. And its undercapitalized banking system is up to its ears in the sovereign debt of weak EU nations and can't afford to keep booking losses.

But if the ECB starts to monetize the debt of weaker EU nations (which it already is doing in shadow form with its three-year loans to large member banks), the debt of the wealthier EU nations will become less attractive to private investors. A big money print by the ECB will inflate the Euro in Germany just as it inflates it in Greece, and no creditor wants to hold debt denominated in a potentially inflationary currency. If private investors step back from German sovereign debt, the EU game will be up.

In the end, the wealthier nations will probably leave the EU, and possibly create a smaller currency union with each other. Or they may just go it alone. Either path will garner the interest of private holders of capital. And that would be the way to restore true financial stability.

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