European choice: Greek bailout Mark II – it’s a default !


The European debt crisis has evolved rather quickly since my last column, “Greece is Bankrupt” (July 2). The European leadership was clearly in denial. The crisis has lurched from one “scare” to another. First, it was Greece, then Ireland, then Portugal; and then back to Greece. On each occasion, European politicians muddled through, dithering to buy time with half-baked solutions: more “kicking the can down the road.” By last week, predictably, the crisis came home to roost. Financial markets in desperation turned on Italy, the euro-zone’s third largest economy, with the biggest sovereign debt market in Europe. It has 1.9 trillion euros of sovereign debt outstanding (120% of its GDP), three times as much as Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined.

Greece austerity vote: Q & A Over the next two weeks the EU must come up with a second Greek bailout which could be as high as £107billion on top of the £98billion in rescue loans agreed for Greece in May

The situation has become just too serious, if contagion was allowed to fully play out. It was a reality check; a time to act as it threatened both European integration and the global recovery. So, on July 21, an emergency summit of European leaders of the 17-nation euro-currency area agreed to a second Greek bailout (Mark II), comprising two key elements: (i) the debt exchange (holders of 135 billion euros in Greek debt maturing up to 2020 will voluntarily accept new bonds of up to 15 to 30 years); and (ii) new loans of 109 billion euros (through its bailout fund and the IMF). Overall, Greek debt would fall by 26 billion euros from its total outstanding of 350 billion euros. No big deal really.

Contagion: Italy and Spain

By mid-July, the Greek debt drama had become a full-blown euro-zone crisis. Policy makers’ efforts to insulate other countries from a Greek default, notably Italy and Spain, have failed. Markets panicked because of disenchantment over sloppy European policy making. For the first time, I think, investors became aware of the chains of contagion and are only now beginning to really think about them.

The situation in Italy is serious. At US$262bil, total sovereign claims by international banks on Italy exceeded their combined sovereign exposures to Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, which totalled US$226bil. European banks account for 90% of international banks’ exposure to Italy and 84% of sovereign exposure, with French & German banks being the most exposed. Italy & Spain have together 6.3 trillion euros of public and private debt between them. Reflecting growing market unease, the yield on Italy’s 10-year government bonds had risen to 5.6% on July 20, and Spain’s, to 6%, against 2.76% on German comparable bunds, the widest spread ever in the euro era.

Italy and Spain face different challenges. Spain has a high budget deficit (9.2% of GDP in 2010, down from 11.1% in 2009) the target being to take it down to 6% in 2011 which assumes high implementation risks. Its debt to GDP ratio (at 64% in 2011) is lower than the average for the eurozone. The economy is only gradually recovering, led by exports. But Spain suffers from chronic unemployment (21%, with youth unemployment at 45%), weak productivity growth and a dysfunctional labour market.

It must also restructure its savings banks. Spain needs to continue with reforms; efforts to repair its economy are far from complete and risks remain considerable. Italy has a low budget deficit (4.6% of GDP) and hasn’t had to prop-up its banks. But its economy has barely expanded in a decade, and its debt to GDP ratio of 119% in 2010 was second only to Greece. Italy suffers from sluggish growth, weak productivity and falling competitiveness. Its weaknesses reflect labour market rigidities and low efficiency. The main downside risk comes from turmoil in the eurozone periphery.

Another decade of stagnation also poses a major risk. But both Spain and Italy are not insolvent unlike Greece. The economies are not growing and need to be more competitive. The average maturity of their debt is a reasonable six to seven years. But the psychological damage already done to Europe’s bond market cannot be readily undone.

The deal: Europeanisation of Greek debt

The new bailout deal soughts to ring-fence Greece by declaring “Greece is in a uniquely grave situation in the eurozone. This is the reason why it requires an exceptional solution,” implying it’s not to be repeated. Most don’t believe it. But to its credit, the new deal cuts new ground in addition to bringing-in much needed extra cash – 109 billion euros, plus a contribution by private bondholders of up to 50 billion euros by mid-2014. For the first time, the new framework included solvent counterparties and adequate collateral. For investors, there is nothing like having Europe as the new counterparty instead of Greece. This europeanisation of the Greek debt lends some credibility to the programme. Other new features include: (i) reduction in interest rates to about 3.5% (4.5% to 5.8% now) and extension of maturities to 15 years (from 7 years), to be also offered to Ireland and Portugal; (ii) the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), its rescue vehicle, will be allowed to buy bonds in the secondary market, extend precautionary credit lines before States are shut-out of credit markets, and lend to help recapitalise banks; and (iii) buy collateral for use in the bond exchange, where investors are given four options to accept new bonds carrying differing risk profiles, worth less than their original holdings.

The IIF (Institute of International Finance), the industry trade group that negotiated for the banks, insurance funds and other investors, had estimated that one-half of the 135 billion euros to be exchanged will be for new bonds at 20% discount, giving a savings of 13.5 billion euros off the Greek debt load. Of the 109 billion euros from the new bailout (together with the IMF), 35 billion euros will be used to buy collateral to serve as insurance against the new bonds in exchange, while 20 billion euros will go to buy Greek debt at a discount in the secondary market and then retiring it, giving another savings of 12.6 billion euros on the Greek debt stock.

Impact of default

Once again, the evolving crisis was a step ahead of the politicians. There are fears that Italy and Spain could trip into double-dip recession as global growth falters, threatening the debt dynamics of both countries. This time the IMF weighed in with serious talk of contagion with widespread knock-on effects worldwide. Fear finally struck, forcing Germany and France to act, this time more seriously. The first reaction came from the credit rating agencies. Moody’s downgraded Greece’s rating three notches deeper into junk territory: to Ca, its second-lowest (from Caa1), short of a straight default. Similarly, Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s have cut Greece’s rating to CCC.

They have since downgraded it further. They are all expected to state Greece is in default when it begins to exchange its bonds in August for new, long-dated debt (up to 30 years) at a loss to investors (estimated at 21% of their bond holdings). The rating agencies would likely consider this debt exchange a “credit event”, but only for a limited period, I think. Greece’s financial outlook thereafter will depend on whether the country would likely recover or default again. History is unkind: sovereigns that default often falters again.

What is also clear now is the new bailout would not do much to reduce Greece’s huge stock of sovereign debt. At best, the fall in its debt stock will represent 12% of Greece’s GDP. Over the medium term, Greece continues to face solvency challenges. Its stock of debt will still be well in excess of 130% of GDP and will face significant implementation risks to financial and economic reform. No doubt the latest bailout benefitted the entire eurozone by containing near-term contagion risks, which otherwise would engulf Europe. It did manage to provide for the time being, some confidence to investors in Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy that it’s not going to be a downward spiral. But the latest wave of post-bailout warnings have reignited concerns of contagion risks and revived investor caution.

Still, the bailout doesn’t address the very core fiscal problems across the eurozone. This is not a comprehensive solution. It shifted additional risks towards contributing members with stronger finances and their taxpayers as well as private investors, and reduces incentives for governments to keep their fiscal affairs under strict check. This worries the Germans as it weakens the foundation of currency union based on fiscal self-discipline. Moreover, the EFSF now given more authority to intervene pre-emptively before a state gets bankrupt, didn’t get more funds.

German backlash appears to be also growing. While the market appears to be moving beyond solvency to looking at potential threat to the eurozone as a whole, the elements needed to fight systemic failure are not present. At best, the deal reflected a courageous effort but fell short of addressing underlying issues, leading to fears that Greece-like crisis situations could still flare-up, spreading this time deep into the eurozone’s core.

Growing pains

The excitement of the bailout blanked out an even bigger challenge that could further destabilise the eurozone sluggish growth. The July Markit Purchasing Managers Index came in at 50.8, the lowest since August 2009 and close enough to the 50 mark that divides expansion from contraction. And, way below the consensus forecast. Both manufacturing and services slackened. Germany and France expanded at the slowest pace in two years in the face of a eurozone that’s displaying signs it is already contracting. Looking ahead, earlier expectations of a 2H’11 pick-up now remains doubtful.Lower GDP growth will require fiscal stimulus to fix, at a time of growing fiscal consolidation which threatens a downward spiral. At this time, the eurozone needs policies to restart growth, especially around the periphery. Without growth, economic reform and budget restraints only exacerbate political backlash and social tensions. This makes it near impossible to restore debt sustainability. Germany may have to delay its austerity programme without becoming a fiscal drag. This trade-off between growth and austerity is real.

IMF studies show that cutting a country’s budget deficit by 3% points of GDP would reduce real output growth by two percentage points and raise the unemployment rate by one percentage point. History suggests growth and austerity just do not mix. In practical terms, it is harder for politicians to stimulate growth than cut debt.

Reform takes time to yield results. And, markets are fickle. In the event the market switches focus from high-debt to low-growth economies, a crisis can easily evolve to enter a new phase one that could help businesses invest and employ rather than a pre-mature swing of the fiscal axe. Timing is critical. It now appears timely for the United States and Europe to shift priorities. They can’t just wait forever to rein in their debts. Sure, they need credible plans over the medium term for deficit reduction. More austerity now won’t get growth going. The surest way to build confidence is to get recovery onto a sustainable path only growth can do that. Without it, the risk of a double-dip recession increases. Latest warnings from the financial markets in Europe and Wall Street send the same message: get your acts together and grow. This needs statesmanship. The status quo is just not good enough anymore.

Former banker Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British chartered scientist who now spends time writing, teaching and promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome; email:


Stupid central banker tricks


By Paul R. La Monica

The euro has rallied against the dollar despite worries about Greece as investors bet on ECB rate hikes.

The euro has rallied against the dollar despite worries about Greece as investors bet on ECB rate hikes. Click chart for more on currencies.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Greek debt crisis? What Greek debt crisis?

The European Central Bank is meeting this Thursday and is widely expected to raise interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point to 1.5%. That would be the second rate hike by the ECB this year.


 Sure, the austerity vote in Greece is good news since it could mean the worst-case scenario fears about a euro meltdown may not be realized.

But this isn’t the end to the difficulties in Greece. Doesn’t it seem just a bit odd that the ECB is contemplating more tightening at a time when there are still legitimate worries about the problems spreading to Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain? Moody’s downgraded Portugal’s debt to junk status on Tuesday.

The sovereign debt woes could be disastrous news for banks in France and Germany — the two big euro zone nations that actually have somewhat healthy economies.

But the ECB, unlike the Federal Reserve in the U.S., only has one mandate: inflation. (The Fed is charged with watching prices as well as employment.)

And even though commodity prices have come back from their peaks earlier this year, they are still somewhat alarmingly high. Crude oil, for example, has crept back above $95 a barrel. So that may be all that ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet needs to justify bumping rates up a bit.

Still, will the move backfire?

Another ECB rate hike would further widen the gap between interest rates in the euro zone and here in the United States. (They’ve been near zero since December 2008.) The general rule of thumb in the land of paper money is that the higher the interest rates are, the stronger the currency.

Europe cited as scariest risk to economy

But that’s a problem from an inflation standpoint. With oil and many other commodities denominated in dollars, the weaker the greenback gets, the more likely it is for commodity prices to go higher.

“An ECB rate hike means a higher euro going forward,” said Brian Gendreau, market strategist with Financial Network Investment Corp., a Segunda, Calif.-based advisory firm.

“It seems paradoxical that Europe, with its very serious problems, has a currency that’s strong and rising but that’s a reality. That means the trading bias is in favor of a lower dollar and higher oil prices,” Gendreau added.

It makes you wonder if David Letterman needs to expand his stupid tricks franchise and create one specifically for central bankers.

Other currency experts wondered if the ECB should just leave well enough alone since crude prices have pulled back in the past few months after surging due to Arab Spring-inspired supply disruption fears.

“I don’t think the ECB would be doing the right thing with a rate hike. Oil prices are high but inflation pressures have abated quite a bit,” said Kathy Lien, director of currency research for foreign exchange brokerage GFT in Jersey City.

Lien said the ECB needs to pay more attention to slow growth in Europe — even if it’s not officially one of that central bank’s particular mandates.

“Price stability is the top priority but the more important question is should the ECB be doing this during a fragile point of negotiations with Greece?” she said. “Raising rates makes financing more difficult for people in Europe.”

What makes matters more vexing is the fact that it’s not as if the ECB won’t have other opportunities to raise rates soon if inflation does in fact pick up.

The ECB will meet again on August 4 and has another meeting scheduled for September 8. Wouldn’t it be more judicious to wait for at least another month or two to see how the situation in Greece plays out before rushing to raise rates again?
“I am a little puzzled by why the ECB seems so intent on raising interest rates right now. It’s not going to ease any of the problems in the peripheral euro countries,” Gendreau said.

Still, some think that the ECB rate hike may be a non-event. That’s because the euro has already rallied against the dollar this year despite all the negative headlines about Greece, Portugal, Ireland, etc.

“The speculation about a rate hike has been in the cards for a couple of months,” said Ian Naismith, co-manager of The Currency Strategies Fund (FOREX), a Sarasota-Fla. Based mutual fund specializing in foreign exchange investments.

Naismith pointed out that just because the ECB is likely to raise rates on Thursday does not mean that this is the beginning of a long cycle of rate hikes. The key is going to be whether Trichet signals that he’s still worried about inflation and that more rate increases are on the way.

“Nothing is etched in stone,” Naismith said.

Let’s hope so. The ECB does seem strangely hell bent on rate hikes even though Europe is still in the midst of major financial upheaval.

But the last thing Greece, other troubled European nations and the rest of the world for that matter, need is for the ECB to make matters worse with ill-timed policy decisions.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks. To top of page

China boosts euro, makes stocks flying

The euro staged a broad rally and US stocks jumped 3 percent Thursday, after China said Europe remains a key investment market for its foreign-exchange reserves.

The People’s Bank of China said a Financial Times report that Beijing was concerned about its euro-zone bond holdings was groundless.

The FT report had driven the euro to a near four-year low on Wednesday and cut short a rally in US stocks.

Stocks in Europe and emerging markets also jumped and crude oil prices jumped 4 percent as the perceived risk that China might change the composition of its foreign exchange reserves was reduced.

“Reports from the front suggested that investors might become frightened that China could do something drastic,” said Douglas Peta, an independent market strategist in New York. “Getting some assurance that Chinese sale of European debts isn’t imminent is making everyone feel better.”

At the close of trade, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 284.54 points, or 2.85 percent, to 10,258.99. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 35.11 points, or 3.29 percent, to 1,103.06. The Nasdaq Composite Index climbed 81.80 points, or 3.73 percent, at 2,277.68.

Equity markets shrugged off a report showing the US economy grew at a slower pace than previously estimated in the first quarter as business investment slackened.

The euro gained 1.67 percent at $1.237 while the dollar fell against a basket of major trading-partner currencies.

On Wednesday the euro collapsed 1.5 percent against the dollar after the Financial Times reported China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) was meeting foreign bankers because of concerns about its exposure to debt troubles in Europe.

SAFE, the arm of the central bank, manages China’s $2.4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves — the world’s largest stockpile.

Crude oil prices posted their biggest two-day gain since mid-August, as a forecast for an intense Atlantic hurricane season fueled fears of disruptions in US supplies and spurred speculative buying. Oil had also risen more than 4 percent on Wednesday.

People’s Daily Online / Agencies

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Eurozone leaders approve Greece aid package

Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel (7 May 2010)

Eurozone laders agreed to “accelerate” plans to reduce public deficits

Leaders of the 16 EU member states that use the euro have approved an 110bn euro ($145bn; £95bn) loan to Greece to prevent its debt crisis from spreading.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the eurozone would do whatever it took to safeguard Greece’s financial stability.

In return for the three-year loan, Athens must cut public spending.

The euro’s value has fallen because of fears that countries such as Spain and Portugal could suffer similar problems.

The eurozone leaders also announced proposals for a European Stabilisation Mechanism to preserve financial stability.

‘Serious situation’

At a meeting in Brussels on Friday, the eurozone leaders gave their approval to the EU-International Monetary Fund rescue package for Greece, and committed to “accelerate” plans to reduce deficits.

We have several instruments at our disposal and we will use them
Jose Manuel Barroso
European Commission President

They also agreed to tighten EU budget rules, put in place more effective sanctions for breaking debt guidelines, and monitor deficits and competitiveness.

All institutions, including the European Central Bank, would use the “full range of means available to ensure the stability of the euro area”, they said in a statement.

“We will defend the euro whatever it takes. We have several instruments at our disposal and we will use them,” Mr Barroso told a news conference afterwards.

He declined to give any details of the plans, which will be presented to the finance ministers of all 27 EU member states at a meeting on Sunday, but said it would be done under “existing financial possibilities” in the budget.

The BBC’s Jonny Dymond in Brussels says Greece’s bail-out is requiring a lot more money than was suggested just a few weeks ago.

What went wrong in Greece?

An old drachma note and a euro note
Greece’s economic reforms that led to it abandoning the drachma as its currency in favour of the euro in 2002 made it easier for the country to borrow money.
The opening ceremony at the Athens Olympics
Greece went on a debt-funded spending spree, including high-profile projects such as the 2004 Athens Olympics, which went well over budget.
A defunct restaurant for sale in central Athens
It was hit by the downturn, which meant it had to spend more on benefits and received less in taxes. There were also doubts about the accuracy of its economic statistics.
A man with a bag of coins walks past the headquarters of the Bank  of Greece
Greece’s economic problems meant lenders started charging higher interest rates to lend it money and widespread tax evasion also hit the government’s coffers.
Workers in a rally led by the PAME union in Athens on 22 April  2010
There have been demonstrations against the government’s austerity measures to deal with its 300bn euro (£267bn) debt, such as cuts to public sector pay.
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou at an EU summit in Brussels  on 26 March 2010
Now the government is having to access a 110bn euro (£95bn; $146.2bn) bail-out package from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
Greece's problems have made investors nervous, which has made it  more expensive for other European countries such as Portugal to borrow  money.
Greece’s problems have made investors nervous, which has made it more expensive for other European countries such as Portugal to borrow money.

The financial assistance being offered is entirely without precedent – the hope is that it will stop the fears of default spreading from one indebted European country to another, our correspondent says.

“[We] are full aware that we face a serious situation in the eurozone. It is about responsibility and it is about solidarity. We will face the situation together,” said Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council.

The leaders hope to have the new European Stabilisation Mechanism, which would have up to 70bn euros at its disposal, in place before markets open on Monday to prevent investor fears over Greece spreading to other countries with high deficits, low growth or low competitiveness.

Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the mechanism would send a “very clear signal” to market speculators to back off.

She had earlier spoken to US President Barack Obama, who called for a “strong policy response” extending to the international community.

Source: BBC, 8 May 2010 02:04 UK, Newscribe : get free news in real time

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