The latest Greek bailout is done — the official statement is here — and it involves Greece going into “selective default,” which is, yes, a kind of default.
I can’t remember a major financial story which has been covered so inadequately by the financial press. All the incomprehensible eurospeak seems to have worked, along with the fact that the deal was announced in Brussels, where the general level of journalistic financial literacy is substantially lower than it is in London or New York or Frankfurt. On top of that, statements are coming from so many different directions — Eurocrats, heads of state, the Institute of International Finance, Greek officials, Portuguese and Irish officials, you name it — that it’s extremely hard to put it all together into one coherent whole.
Oh, and to complicate things even further, most of the day’s discussion was based on various widely-disseminated draft documents which differed substantially from the final statement.
This is a bail-in as well as a bail-out: while Greece is getting the €109 billion it needs to cover its fiscal deficit, both the official sector and the private sector are going to take losses on their loans to the country.
As such, it sets at least two hugely important precedents. Firstly, eurozone countries will be allowed to default on their debt. Secondly, a whole new financing architecture is being built for Greece; French president Nicolas Sarkozy called it “the beginnings of a European Monetary Fund.”
The nature of massive precedent-setting international financing deals is that they never happen only once. There’s lots of talk today that this deal is for Greece and for Greece only, but some of the more explicit language to that effect was excised from the final statement. On thing is for sure: these tools will be used again, in future. They will be used again in Greece, since this deal is not enough on its own to bring Greece into solvency; and they will be used in other countries on Europe’s periphery too, with Portugal and/or Ireland probably coming next.
As far as the public sector is concerned, the European Union will do four main things. First, it will extend the maturities on Greece’s debt from the current 7.5 years to somewhere between 15 years and 30 years: the loans that the EU is currently giving Greece aren’t designed to be repaid, in some instances, until 2041.
Second, the interest rate on those loans will be extremely low — essentially, Greece is getting those EU funds at cost, currently about 3.5%. The EU is also extending these ultra-low financing rates to Portugal and Ireland, so as not to implicitly punish countries which don’t default.
Third, the EU will put together its own stimulus plan for Greece. The phrase “Marshall Plan” was taken out of the final statement, but there’s still talk of “mobilizing EU funds” and building “a comprehensive strategy for growth and investment.” This is vague, of course, but it does at least constitute an attempt to help Greece through a period of very painful austerity.
Fourth, the Maastricht treaty will get resuscitated, with all eurozone countries except Greece, Ireland and Portugal committing to bring their deficit down to less than 3% of GDP by 2013. Paul Krugman is screaming about this, but this was a central part of the eurozone project from the get-go, and clearly the eurozone needs some kind of fiscal straitjacket for its constituent members to prevent the rest of them from running up enormous deficits and then getting bailed out by Germany.
Finally, the EU will provide “credit enhancement” for Greece’s private-sector bonds. This is a central part of the default plan, and it looks a lot like the Brady plan of the late 1980s. The official statement from the IIF, which is representing private-sector creditors in this matter, is a little vague, but essentially if you’re a holder of Greek bonds right now, you have three choices.
1. You can do nothing, and hope that Greece pays you in full and on time.
2. You can extend your maturities out to 30 years, and accept a modest coupon of 4.5%; in return, your principal will be guaranteed with an embedded zero-coupon bond from an impeccable triple-A-rated EU institution, probably the EFSF.
3. You can extend your maturities out to 30 years, take a 20% haircut, and get a higher coupon of 6.42%; again, the principal is guaranteed with zero-coupon collateral.
4. You can extend your maturities out to 15 years, take a 20% haircut, get a coupon of 5.9%, and have only a partial principal guarantee through funds held in an escrow account.
The first option is by far the most interesting. No one has come out and said that Greece is going to default on bondholders who don’t exchange their bonds; instead, there’s just a lot of arm-twisting of big banks to do all this “voluntarily.” But that won’t stop the credit rating agencies giving Greece’s bonds a default rating — this is a coercive deal, which clearly reduces the value of banks’ Greek debt. (After all, just look at those haircuts.)
Is it possible for other bondholders — those who haven’t had their arms twisted — to free-ride on the back of this deal and continue to get paid in full? I suspect that it probably is. Which is one reason why this Greek restructuring won’t be the last.
Overall, this looks like a deal which can quite easily be scaled up and used as a framework for future default/restructurings. I don’t know if that’s the intent. But there’s nothing here to reassure holders of Portuguese and Irish bonds — or even Spanish and Italian bonds, for that matter — that they’re home safe. Greece will be the first EU country to default on its debt. But I doubt it’ll be the last.
[Source: By Felix Salmon, Reuters, 21Jul11]
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