Monday, 31 October 2011

A referendum

More on Greece and the Eurozone in this article I am afraid, but it is the issue which is going to shape events in the next year or two to a far greater extent than a referendum on Scottish independence, which is relatively neutral to those in the remainder of the UK, or some of the other legal issues I cover on this blog.

It appears that I was adrift on the 60% haircut for private creditors of Greek debt. Under the package agreed by the Eurozone last week it is "only" to be 50%, for the moment. But the Greek government has now out of the blue decided to hold a referendum on that package, apparently to take place around January.

This is an odd development. With Greek acceptance of the deal now in issue, it puts in doubt whether the EFSF can send more funds to Greece next week as proposed: I doubt anyone really thinks Greece can pay off any of these new "loans", but a minimum of pretence needs to be maintained nonetheless. We were earlier told by the Greek government that they will run out of cash in the middle of November. How will Greece fund itself in the meantime?

It is difficult to read the intentions of the Greek government with this surprising announcement. Is it to give the Greek people a taste of semi-default in the November to January period, as without the EFSF money it will not be able to pay public sector wages or pensions in full during the period?

Or is the referendum an attempt to get a better deal out of the EU in the hope that the EFSF money will still be credited to them next week and that they can hold a gun to the German government's metaphorical head between then and January?

In either case the dangers are immense, and are four fold. First, if the current package is rejected in the referendum, unless the EU agrees to fund Greece with real money transfers it can only result in sovereign debt default, which would leave the ECB with deficits which will require further funds from Eurozone members to finance on the public side. This is because the current 50% "haircut" agreed in the current package only applies to the banks. It does not apply to public authority creditors, and in particular to the ECB which has been buying Greek bonds on the market to make cheaper finance available to Greece. To have Greece potentially defaulting on its ECB support is startling and must be causing apoplexy in Berlin.

Secondly, in the event of such default, the "haircut" for private creditors will not be 50% but probably near 100%. When taken with the call-in of hedging insurance on the debt, it will leave a significant number of banks and other financial institutions insolvent, requiring further taxpayer support, which may exceed the ability of some Eurozone countries to finance when the support also required for the ECB's losses is taken into account.

Thirdly, a referendum decision against the deal seems likely to result in Greece leaving the eurozone, if only so that it can print money to provide temporary relief on its deficits, at the expense of high inflation, and also devalue its currency.

Fourthly, this will lead to immense pressure on Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. I cannot predict what that will lead to, but it feels most unpleasant. A clearing of the decks with respect to Eurozone debt, accompanied by a period of recession in Europe (including the UK), may sound attractive as a resolution until it comes time to live through it.

A referendum is no doubt good for democracy. But in terms of the Greece and Europe, this is either clever brinkmanship by the Greek government, or lunacy.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Very dangerous times, Part 2

Things have move on a little since my article of 3rd October.

Word on the street is that the apparent indecision in the EU masks a decision that has been made: it has apparently been concluded that the Greek government is incapable of reducing its budget deficit unless it no longer has the money available to it to spend, so the next tranche of "loan" of €8bn will not be made. Instead Greece will be allowed to default by renouncing its sovereign debt to 40% of face value, which coincidentally is the price at which their debt is trading on the open market, and any further financial assistance given to Greece will be in the form of emergency transitional relief. Things are about to get a great deal worse for people in Greece.

The delays are apparently now to allow all reasonable effort to be put into ensuring that the banking system does not collapse once the formal announcement of the default is made (the default will force the banks to crystalise the losses on their balance sheets), by recapitalising the banks and by restructuring one of the most vulnerable, Dexia. Whether Greek domestic banks are capable of being saved (and any EFSF effort or money is to be put into this) is not clear, but it is banks in other parts of the Eurozone, and in particular French banks, which are now the main targets of this recapitalisation. The remaining battles within the Eurozone are about whether the recapitalisation of French banks is to be a French taxpayer responsibility, or an EFSF responsibility to which other Eurozone countries, and in particular Germany, will contribute.

The EU/ECB appear to have gone on the path of short term pain for (possible) long term gain, but the question is whether Greek default can be managed without causing contagion to Portugal, Italy and Spain. In any event, little attention seems to have been paid to David Cameron's preaching to the Eurozone, quite reasonably given that the UK is not a member.

Meanwhile the UK government and Bank of England have gone on the opposite path of short term gain for (possible) long term pain, by starting a new round of quantitative easing. Quantitative easing comprises in effect a compulsory taking of a proportion of all UK denominated liquidated assets, such as banks accounts, cash ISAs and bonds, for the relief of debt in the UK by inflation. It puts more money in the economy but punishes the prudent, which is not sustainable as a long term model. It is particularly bad for people's savings in pension funds and for annuity rates because of the reduction in bond yields. The point that may be in danger of being overlooked is that the economy needs savings, investment and trust as well as short-term liquidity in order to prosper in the long term.

So two very different approaches to how to deal with sovereign and private debt. Time will tell which is the more correct. I would not necessary bet on this being the UK government rather than the German government.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Very dangerous times

So Greece has admitted what everyone thought, namely that they have not met the formal conditions for the release of a further unrepayable "loan" of €8bn, and they are in talks with the IMF, ECB and EU/EFSF.

We really are at crunch time here. It is conventional to blame Germany for being unwilling to take the steps necessary to underwrite Greek debts, either by way of eurobonds or by agreeing to borrowing being undertaken by the ECB secured against the EFSF at lower rates than Greece could ever manage, in order to enable further "loans" to Greece which can never be paid off but which would stave off default towards the private (banking) sector. The argument, probably correctly, is that German citizens will be far worse off if they allow Greece to default, with a domino effect on Italy and Spain; and since they have the economy to more or less stand it, why not have Germany underwrite Greek debt? However German citizens seem to want a bit of Bundesbank style rectitude established, and who can blame them. Whilst Germany holds the key to the puzzle, let it not be forgotten that Greek governments are at root to blame for the crisis. They deliberately, profligately and, in terms of the eurozone treaty, illegally incurred excessive indebtedness and cooked their books in order to hide it.

We have something of a smaller scale going on in the UK. The Tory party were only for a short time, during the Thatcher years, the party of the middle classes. They have gone back to 1950/60s-style "Toff Toryism", which is a brand of Eton Toryism which is generally content if they can keep their own money at the same time as more or less managing the country effectively. Their strategy for dealing with national and private debt in the UK is clearly to inflate it away: that means transferring funds from those in the middle classes responsible enough to save for their future (including their retirement) to irresponsible people who instead of saving have rung up very large debts, including the UK government itself. So in contrast to the stance of the German government, there is no moral high ground from the UK government here.

The Tories will do as little towards the middle classes as they can get away with without losing too many of their votes - their calculations are tactical rather than moral. From that point of view Ed Milliband's wooing of the aspiring middle classes at the Labour Party conference is an interesting and probably wise development. Probably he means it only slightly more than does, say, David Cameron, but at least it would be done with a warmer smile (or at least, would be should Ed Balls cease to be the shadow Chancellor.)