Posts Tagged ‘ECB’


November 1, 2011

The Greek Prime Minister wants to hold a referendum on the new bailout deal to be signed with the Europeans. It appears that this was an unexpected move which has caused anger throughout the Eurozone (also here). The details are not yet available, but it seems that Greece will negotiate the rescue plan first, and then will put the proposal to a vote. The Greek people will decide if they agree or not.

To be honest, I thought that this was the best piece of news (for Greece) to come out recently. Negotiations thus far were a two-party game, which has now been forcibly turned into a three-part asymmetric game:

  1. The Greek Government who are on one side of the negotiating table,
  2. The EU, ECB, bankers, IMF, etc. who are on the other side of the negotiating table, and
  3. The Greek people who are voting on the outcome when negotiations are complete.

Now one has to only think: whose negotiating power increased immensely and whose negotiating power took a dive, when the third party entered the game. Yes, it is the Greek government who now drive the process.

Also, it is worth remembering that what Eurocrats fear most is democracy. The history of referenda on EU policies is not stellar, and I suspect that they really don’t want to lose this one. It will not surprise me if Greeks get away with an 80% uniform haircut including the ECB, and bank recapitalisation for free.

Unlike what Greek commentators keep repeating, Greeks have the option to say No: a standard EU policy is to keep having referenda until a Yes vote is won, giving more and more sweeteners in the process.

PS: All is not clear sailing though. A requirement is that the Greek government will maintain its slim majority until January, which is not certain. Another Greek MP resigned today, most probably because of the referendum proposal itself. The opposition leader does not want to hold a trump in his hands, and promises to stop the referendum at all costs.

The chance of Greece descending into a chaotic horde of witch hunters has gone up by another notch.

adverse efsf

October 24, 2011

There is a widespread view that the EU will attempt to lever up the EFSF capital to achieve an insurance capacity of EUR2-3tr, by turning it into the equity tranche of a sovereign CDO. Others put forward a TARP-like structure which will buy back bad sovereign debt.

A Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) will be the financial entity that will implement this endeavour, where whatever is left of the initial EUR440bn EFSF money will serve as the capital. This is certaily a big number, which is bound to catch the headlines and trigger a stock market rally. But is there any meat on this bone?

How do you value that crap?

Although yet unknown, the bond buy-back structure will be probably similar to the TARP model which was implemented in the US to help banks offload their ‘misunderstood’ assets. The idea behind TARP was that the market for CDOs and other morgage backed instruments just dissappeared overnight. For that reason, if banks were to sell these assets they would receive very little, even though foreclosures at the time were not justifying such a severe price cut.

In order to implement the TARP, a price discovery mechanism was needed to gauge what a fair value would have been. An ‘inverse auction’ was put into place, where the holders of the assets posted the prices at which they were prepared to sell, and the lowest prices were filled first until capacity was reached. Therefore selling institutions had an incentive to post a low price to get rid of their assets, and losses were written down. To fill in the holes these sales punched in their capital, banks issued preferred shares that were bought by the same programme. A total of USD700bn were earmarked for this programme, of which about two-thirds were actually used.

How would that work in the context of the EFSF? Here Greek, Portugese and Irish bonds appear to be eligible at the moment, while Spanish and Italian bonds could become eligible in the future (if eligibility is defined as being bailed out). Banks that hold periphery bonds will post a selling price, and the cheapest ones would be filled first. One does not know yet the exact mechanics, but it is safe to assume that Greek bonds will be the first ones to go. Obviously, the current market price serves as a lower bound, but if enough banks try to get rid of the bonds, then the price might not be too far away.

The main driver behind the TARP was that households were not defaulting on their mortgages at a rate that would justify the market prices, and that if these ‘misunderstood’ securities were kept for a while then the market would resume and reasonable price levels would be restored. The current situation is markedly different: the problems facing Greece (and other periphery countries) are not due to the lack of liquidity but lack of solvency. The low price of Greek debt is not unreasonable if one considers the fundamentls, and is in fact supported by the implicit or expected haircuts described in the various PSIs. If these PSIs were gone, the price of Greek debt would be arguable even lower. Pumping liquidity in the secondary market would do little good to the banks involved, and no good to the Greek state.

The related recapitalisation would be welcome though. Banks gain some immunity against sovereign default if the bonds are off their balance sheets. This also takes the burden to recapitalise the banking sector off the sovereign, but causes a moral hazard issue which invalidates the whole idea.

Survival of the fastest

As it stands the EUR440bn are not sufficient to provide a decent backstop. Already nearly half of the money has been spent, but let’s say that there is another EUR250bn left in the fund, and the liabilities of the larger periphery countries easily exceed that. An argument is to use the magic of leverage to turn these EUR250bn into EUR2tr or even more. I think that this argument is flawed, if one considers the incentives of the countries involved.

The size of the Greek default is constantly being debated in the financial press over the lat few weeks. The initial PSI of 21% has grown into a PSI+ of 50-60%, with some commentators advocating levels of 90-100%. There is a valid argument that the costs of recapitalising the Greek banking sector do not go away. Every Euro that a Greek bank loses through a haircut is a Euro that Greece has to borrow in order to recapitalise the bank. This means that the true impact of a 50% haircut might be actually less than the 21% that was originally proposed.

In the TARP world the default of a household was disconnected from the profit or loss that the MBS realised. But in the EFSF case this does not hold: if Portugal defaults then the Portugese state will need funds to recapitalise Portugese banks; if the EUR250bn have run dry because Greece and Ireland have already tapped the fund, then Portugal will be left exposed. It matters little that EUR2tr were insured, if the equity tranche is wiped out. The incentive for Portugal is to default before everyone else, just to make sure that her banks take advantage of the EFSF rescue funds.

The size of the default is now subject to adverse selection too. If Portugal need not worry about the impact of a default on her own banking system, then she might opt for a much larger haircut. As her banks are recapitalised externally, why not give them a helping hand?

Obviously moral hazard becomes an even more important issue for Spain and Italy, where the money involved would be stretched in the better of scenarios. If they want to have any chance of protecting their financial system, then they have to rush to the EFSF gates early in the day.

What this leverage will create, as the crisis deteriorates, is the equivalent of a good old bank run. A leveraged institution might not have enough capital, and everyone eligible rushes to get the most out of it. It also resembles the good old CDO: if CDOs underestimated tail dependence and systemic correlations, European politicians are making sure that a cluster of sovereign defaults will happen in the EU sooner rather than later.

As if there is not enough contagion as it is…

always in your debt

December 24, 2009

This is how the Greek debt looks like for the next thirty years. EUR349bn is due, of which EUR95bn (or 27%) is interest and the remaining EUR254bn is the face value.

Distribution of the Greek national debt. Principal and interest in million euros. Source: Bloomberg, Dec09

Greece would typically issue 5- and 10-year bonds. As an example, the notional due in 2012 (approx EUR30bn) would consist of 5-year bonds issued in 2007 and 10-year bonds issued in 2002 (perhaps EUR15bn each). There are also some smaller notional from longer issues, but the bulk of the debt expires before 2019 (the weighted maturity is actually 2017 or thereabouts). This means that in 2010 the government can issue bonds that expire in 2015 and 2020, say EUR15bn each. Then, the notional for 2015 will increase to something around EUR28bn, and a new notional of EUR15bn will be added for 2020. There is a suspiciously large peak in 2019, but I did not have time to investigate its origin. I will collect some more information on each issue and come back with the breakdown.

The bonds Greece issues have typically fixed coupons, that is to say they pay fixed interest. Only a very small number of the issues in the chart pay floating or variable coupons, meaning that the whole current debate on interest rates is irrelevant to Greece’s current exposure. But they will affect the forthcoming issues, as investors will demand higher coupon rates in order to lend to the Greeks. Also, given that Greece might need to borrow money just to pay off the interest of previously issues bonds, there will be a refinancing cost as new coupons will be added. The new orange bars will be a bit larger than they would have been if debt was issued three months ago, and since Greece borrows at fixed rates they will remain higher for the duration of the debt.

Interest rates are close to historic lows, so even with this extra premium the actual amount will not be that different from what it was before: the new orange bars will not be a lot bigger than the existing ones in the chart. It is more of an opportunity missed: other EU countries will take advantage of the low rates to either improve their balance sheets or spend their way out of recession, Greece can do neither. The recession will bite harder, as there will be insufficient fiscal stimulus given the higher cost of money. Moreover, Greece is missing all infrastructure improvements that take place elsewhere in the name of fiscal stimulus. And when interest rates finally pick up, Greece will find herself in the back seat: she did not invest when money was cheap, but still has the same debt burden as if she did.

So who are the immoral bankers that pile up Greek debt, taking advantage of the high spreads that has driven the whole country in despair? Hugh Edwards brings forward some analysis by Goldman Sachs on Greek banks making extensive use of the ECB liquidity facility (which allows institutions to draw funds from the ECB using rated bonds or ABS structures as collateral). This facility was put in place in order to provide liquidity to the holders of highly rated but ‘misunderstood’ securities, and certainly not to provide cheap funding for speculative activities. For some reason Greek banks are always there asking for more, even though they do not appear to be liquidity drained under any measure. In fact, it appears that Greek banks have overdone that to the point where the Central Bank of Greece had to tell them off (presumably under instructions from a pissed off ECB). What do Greek banks do with all that money?

[…] the current spreads on Greek government bonds […] offer Greek banks an exceptional arbitrage opportunity, since by taking advantage of the uniform ECB liquidity rate Greek banks can buy higher Greek government bonds with a much higher yield than the government bonds which their French or German counterparts buy. Regardless of the risk implied through by the Greek CDS spread, Greek government bonds carry a zero risk weighting when calculating riskweighted assets for capital purposes. So for Greek banks this arbitrage carries no capital impact whatsoever. That is to say the Greek banks have been doing very nicely indeed out of the Greek sovereign embarassment, than you very much. Hence it is not difficult to understand the ECB’s growing sense of outrage with the situation.

This means that essentially ECB money is given to Greek banks at very low interest rates, under a scheme designed to help banks that are genuinely in distress. Greek banks use these funds to buy Greek government bonds, which offer a substantially higher rate of return. As far as ECB rules are concerned, these are risk free bonds and Greek banks are not penalized for holding vast amounts of them. The end result is that Greece ends up paying through the nose for funding that comes from the ECB printers via a Greek bank, and Greek banks make huge profits for just taking advantage of a loophole in the rules. One might say that Greek banks are taking on sovereign risk (at the end of the day there is a non-zero probability that Greece will default), but the fates of the Greek state and large Greek banks are so highly intelinked, that a Greek default will wipe them out anyway.

Surely, Greek banks must feel embarassed of employing a regulatory arbitrage scheme that many in Europe see as immoral, especially when the purpetrators are state-owned institutions. Enter Apostolos Tamvakakis, the newly appointed (by the newly elected government) CEO of the National Bank of Greece, the country’s biggest banking institution. Even befor Moody’s decided to let Greece go with a slap on the wrist, he made the bank’s intentions clear:

A downgrade by Moody’s would not affect our decision to fund the Greek state

Enough said.