November 26, 2020

High & Low Finance: Inevitability of a Default in Greece

“It would have a tremendous cost, with no benefit,” the minister, George Papaconstantinou, said in an interview on Greek television. “Greece would be out of markets for 10, 15 years.”

To financial markets, and to many other observers, it is more than thinkable. It is very close to a sure thing. When, how, and how messy it will be are open to question.

It was just a year ago this weekend that Europe bailed out Greece, amid much self-congratulatory talk. Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for monetary policy, said the move was “particularly crucial for countries under speculative attacks in recent weeks,” a reference to Spain and Portugal.

Markets — described by Anders Borg, Sweden’s finance minister, as “wolf packs” — returned to their lairs on the Monday after the bailout. The yield on three-year Greek government bonds plunged to 7.7 percent from 17.5 percent, as the price of such bonds soared 28 percent in a single day.

And how have things gone since then? Just fine in Germany, where growth is accelerating and unemployment is lower than at any time since German unification. The European Central Bank is even raising interest rates to curb inflation there. It’s going more or less acceptably in France and Italy, each of which recorded G.D.P. growth of 1.5 percent in 2010, well below Germany’s 4.0 percent. But it’s not going well at all in the country that supposedly was rescued. Greece’s economy shrank 6.6 percent, far more than the 1.9 percent decline in 2009.

The market wolves are howling again. The yield on Greek three-year bonds is more than 23 percent, not that anyone thinks that yield will really be received. The yields on similar Portuguese and Irish bonds have also soared into double digits. Investors are a little more skittish about Spanish and Italian bonds than they had been, but there is no sense of impending disaster.

Longer-term rates on Portuguese debt did slide a little this week after a tentative agreement on a bailout, but they remain at levels that show widespread doubts about the country’s ability to pay.

The trading patterns of Greek bonds indicate that traders expect a restructuring, and they think it will be messy.

That yields are as low as they are — if you can call 23 percent low — is a reflection of the fact that the bailout has been going on below the surface. The European Central Bank has been lending money to Greek banks, accepting Greek bonds as collateral on loans to other banks, and even buying bonds.

Keeping up the fiction that all will somehow be well if we just wait has its own disadvantages.

“Delays in restructurings are costly,” Alessandro Leipold, the chief economist of the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based research group, and a former official of the International Monetary Fund, wrote in a paper this week. He warned that the longer the inevitable was delayed, the more potential economic production would be lost and the greater the amount of good money that would be thrown after bad in the form of ever larger bailouts. Ultimately, he said, the result would be larger losses for bondholders.

“The real problem is capital shortfalls in European banks,” said Whitney Debevoise, a partner in Arnold Porter and a former executive director of the World Bank, who has been involved as a lawyer for countries and creditors in several restructurings. Until the banks have more capital, forcing them to admit to losses would be problematic, to put it mildly.

Stalling has worked before. In the early 1980s, major American banks could not afford to admit that they had lost huge sums in the Latin American debt crisis. “There was,” Mr. Debevoise said in an interview, “a five-year period of temporizing while Citibank and other banks rebuilt capital.” Finally, there was a debt restructuring and the banks admitted to their losses.

Currently, some European banks would probably be hard pressed to take losses, a group that may include some of the German landesbanks, which are generally owned by state governments and are badly in need of new capital.

The European Central Bank itself would hate to report losses, which is one reason that the first Greek restructuring, when it comes, may avoid forcing bondholders to accept “haircuts,” or reductions in principal. Instead, cutting interest rates and postponing maturities could allow the central bank to pretend it had not lost money. Eventually, however, haircuts seem inevitable.

Although there have been plenty of defaults and restructurings by national governments in recent decades — a partial list includes Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan and Ecuador — there is no agreement on the way to arrange a restructuring. Nearly a decade ago, the I.M.F. tried to put together what it called a “sovereign debt restructuring mechanism,” a sort of international bankruptcy law. The effort collapsed.

As a result, restructurings can be messy. Some bondholders can try to hold out on approving a plan, hoping they will be paid more than those who agree. Lawsuits will be filed.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=96e24c4c6b04b3d11b81d6149732845d

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