floating shorts

January 26, 2010

The markets have pounded Greece heavily last week, both in the equity and the debt front. There is widespread concern on the ability and comittment of the new government to service the country’s debt. Social unrest is evident. Greece also stands acused that, for years, statistics produced by her agencies were flawed at least.

Unlike statistics that are subject to interpretation, creative public accounting or outright reporting fraud, I take a look at the debt Greece issued over the last few years. These amounts are unambiguous, and any patterns that change over the years can give useful insights. To this end, I collected all information on Greek bonds and bills that Bloomberg records from 1993. As debt before 2001 was issued in old dracmae as well as an assortment of different currencies (ranging from pessetas to yen), I focus on the data after 2001. I expect Bloomberg to keep a representative, if not complete, sample.

Hopefully the data can shed some light on any policy changes that relate to the structure of debt. Also, the historical issues can serve as a yardstick to assess the magnitude of new bond or bill issues. One of the key years is 2004: this is the year of the overly expensive Olympic games, and also the year when the “socialist-technocrat” government of Costas Simitis was ousted, with a “conservative-liberal” government of Konstantinos Karamanlis taking their place in power.

In the attached tables you can find 105 short term Bills issues and 88 longer term bond issues. Number 23 in this list is the infamous structured bond that was in the center of the scandal that rocked the country, involving hedge funds, Greek state-run pension funds and JP Morgan.

The table below gives my summary, year-by-year:

2009 14,560 60,589 7.25 18.30%
2008 1,788 35,736 6.66 15.67%
2007 1,364 46,527 18.50 0.60%
2006 1,804 24,562 7.11 11.11%
2005 2,072 40,416 13.40 14.56%
2004 2,273 32,526 7.81 13.37%
2003 1,702 33,004 9.94 1.00%
2002 1,471 31,713 10.36 2.21%
2001 1,178 10,041 8.21 4.86%

Treasury Bills are issued many times in a year, offer no coupons, and have maturities of 13 weeks (~3 months), 26 weeks (~6 months) or 52 weeks (~1 year). Bonds offer coupons payable every six months that can be fixed or floating, and have maturities that range from 2 to 50 years.

One immediate observation is the spike of T-Bills issued in 2009, which is an order of magnitude larger than the typical amount of the previous decade. Presumably this is an attempt to accommodate the appetite of the lenders (or lack of it) to long-term commitments. It also indicates severe cashflow or liquidity problems on the part of the borrower (in the same way one goes to loan sharks for a few weeks until the benefits’ check comes through). And this trend looks likely to continue, if January auctions are an indication (EUR1.6bn and EUR1.2bn borrowed this January, compared to a total of EUR2.55bn last year).

Longer term borrowing has also increased substantially, standing now at about six times what is was 10 years ago, and two times the 2004 levels. But there are some details here worth mentioning: up to 2004, nearly all debt had maturity up to ten years, with the exception of only EUR18bn issued for longer maturities. After 2004, there appears to be an attempt to spread the debt across maturities, a policy that ended abruptly in late 2008. From this point on, most of the debt is very short, with the typical maturity being 5 years. And the new bonds issued this month will also have a 5 year maturity. Investors don’t seem to like putting their money on Greece for the long run.

Another interesting policy shift that happened in 2004 was an increase of floating debt. Up to this point practically all bonds offered fixed coupons, while at the moment about 20% pay interest which is linked to an external index, like the Euribor or some other combination of interest rates. A notable exception is 2007, which follows the scandal of the structured bond (yes, I know that correlation does not mean causation…) The last issue of 2009 pays 2.5% above Euribor; the new EUR8bn 5-year January issue will pay a premium of an extra 3.5% (for comparison, in January 2009 Greece borrowed EUR12.5bn, at 5.50% fixed coupon rate). This means that any interest rate rises in the next years will be increasingly painful for the Greek government, since interest payments for these new bonds will also increase.

These observations indicate investors that are only prepared to lend short-term, demand substantial premiums to do so, and do not want to bear any risk of future interest rate moves. These inverstors are nervous, and nervous investors can pull their money from the table if the going gets tough. Had Greece been able to borrow long-term and at fixed rates, she would not have to worry about investors getting itchy and pulling their money.

And all this matters. The Greek government keeps repeating that it is “they” and not “the markets” that determine their policy, but reality is different. As the figure above shows (borrowed from this FT article), Greece is heavily dependent on foreign investors, as they are holding about 30% of issued debt. As Greece takes her place as a central node in a potential systemic crisis, the probability of foreign banks that try to get out first increases. And this is an event that sets the domino off. The Greek government is desperately trying to front-run this eventuality, trying to expand the debtors’ base by promising bonds in USD and JPY.

The finger will remain on the trigger until investors decide to move away from short term government debt into long term fixed-rate issues. Only then will Greece have the space needed to produce a meaningful strategy that will put her house in order. It is chicken and egg once again…



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