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Greece in debtor’s prison

On the Max Keiser show, I said that Greece has been sent to debtor’s prison. The goal is for creditors to Greece to get as much out of the Greek government as possible before they default. These brazen attempts to heap the lion’s share of the losses onto Greek taxpayers and citizens will eventually backfire and lead to a disorderly outcome.

Right now, the policy is enforce fiscal contraction (a.k.a. fiscal austerity) in the European periphery as a pre-condition for monetising periphery debt until market access is re-gained. I have indicated that the central bank’s buying government paper is about price not quantity. If the ECB committed to a specific spread to Bunds at which it would buy, then it could sustain its programme indefinitely. However, this is unlikely to happen. Instead the ECB is buying just enough bonds to send a message to the Spanish and Italians that they need to live up to their austerity quid pro quo or else the ECB will stop buying.

At a minimum, the ECB wants to prevent ‘free riders’, if they are to move into a quasi-fiscal role. That means the quid pro quo is austerity for purchases. Moreover, institutionally, there is no appetite for capital losses at the ECB and that means buying Greek bonds is something the ECB sees as fraught with peril for the ECB itself.

Ireland is seen as the model here. Nicolas Sarkozy is reported to have said Ireland is today a country which is out of the crisis, or on the way out of the crisis.

A leaked Troika document has admitted this policy has failed in Greece. Clearly, these policies were never meant to be expansionary any more than the same programmes in Asia during their debt crisis in the late 1990s. But fiscal consolidation was sold as the solution to Greece’s problems. And that presents the conundrum of deep economic contraction and stagnant or rising debt.

Given the incomplete institutional structure of the single currency area, I think it was always the case that this conundrum would have to be solved via default. The question is who defaults, how much of a haircut bondholders have to take, and whether the default occurs before or after contagion has made the situation considerably worse.

Everyone is still trying to act as if Greece is different and that even there, there should be as small a haircut as possible. You can’t have small haircuts if the debt levels are high, the primary deficit is high and the institutional structure makes the ECB a reluctant bond buyer. Under these pre-conditions, internal devaluation and austerity are the only policy remedies; and that’s an anti-growth outcome in which debt increases. That is a scenario in which yields stay elevated and contagion takes down the banking system. Right now, that’s where we are headed. The Europeans think they can move to a hard restructuring before contagion becomes systemic. I think contagion is already systemic, both in government debt and with banks.

Note, one new proposal developed by the German consulting company Roland Berger and dubbed the Eureka proposal, is really an asset strip; it is based on having the ECB seize Greek assets for sale to pay off creditors. I find these kinds of policy proposals completely counter productive because they will only awaken a justified sense of economic nationalism in Greece, making the likelihood of a nasty and disorderly default greater.

The Europeans need to get religion about bank recaps, bond buying, and growth strategies or it’s game over.

The video is below comparing and contrasting Greece, Ireland and Iceland.

P.S. – I also go on the warpath about the central bank setting interest rates. How on earth are they expected to succeed?

About 

Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.

5 Comments

  1. Dave Holden says:

    Great discussion of the mechanics of interest rates and banking toward the end – well worth the watch.

  2. Ralf T says:

    The prefered solution for the banking situation by a guy you have been linking to from time to time( http://kantooseconomics.com/ ):
    http://voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/3264
    What is your opinion with regards to that idea?

  3. David Lazarus says:

    The comments from Germany about more austerity in Greece and seizure of Greek national treasures will basically inflame Greece. Ireland may be recovering very slowly because of its exports but with a recession in Europe effectively slashing their exports what hope for Ireland? I think that Ireland will return to the markets attention once Greece defaults and Europe goes into recession. That might be a shock to many who now see Ireland as no longer a risk.

    Further out I see serious problems with Germany. If Ireland returns as a concern that will put the $110.5 billion that Germany has invested in Irish banks at risk. With Greece defaulting that will push CDS rates through the roof and the markets will look much closer at Ireland again. Also it will mean potential problems with the $140 billion that the Uk has in Ireland. Neither Germany or the UK banks could withstand deep haircuts on Irish loans.

  4. dankyogurt says:

    Could not agree more with Greece defaulting now before they sell off all of their infrastucture and resources, out of 126 countries with rated debt they are 126th. They are not trying to save this patient, only putting makeup on a corpse so they can extract some vital organs before burial. Bring back the Drachma, and soon after bring on the new Deutsche Mark.

  5. Oldrich says:

    Ed, great interview as usual. Max should definitely invite you more often. You are one of my favorite and most enlightening guests on the show.