Saturday, February 20, 2010

Economics 20/02/2010: Greeks ahead

Want to understand the extent to which politicians and the public sector workers are failing to understand the fundamental principles of the markets? Look no further than Greek debt issue looming on the horizon.

Some background first. Less than a month ago, Greece put on the market an €8 billion 5-year bond package at a 6.1% interest rate. Seemingly, it was able to attract initial interest of investors - the early bidders were keen on taking high yield paper. Of course, the country bond issuers had no idea why institutional investors had sudden interest in Greek bonds. And this led to a bottleneck emerging in later days of the placement.


Institutional investors, especially diversified portfolio managers, might want a bond for its default risk-adjusted returns. This hardly constitutes a significant proportion of the demand for Greek bonds in recent months. Alternatively, they might down-weight the consideration of the default risk and use the bond purchase to simultaneously hedge their FX exposure elsewhere and earn high returns. It is the second component of the market that drives most of the demand for Greek bonds, aka portfolio management side of demand. This second source of demand is by its nature extremely shallow – there are fewer investors in this complex hedging space and those that are in it have many alternative (to Greek bonds) strategies available to them. It does, of course, help the Greek bond issuers’ cause that their yields are the highest in the Eurozone, making their bonds a solid target for single risk hedging on FX side. But it does not help them that the Euro is at risk of substantial devaluation going forward against the dollar and sterling.


In short, the demand for Greek bonds is not fundamentally driven (i.e not based on pure default risk v yield analysis). Adding insult to the injury, if one should rationally anticipate that Euro is going to continue falling against the dollar in the current scenario of contagion from Greece to the rest of PIIGS, then less faint-hearted amongst us might want to take a short position against the Euro. This can be done by not hedging existent non-Euro exposures. The effect of such implicit shorting is to further reduce demand for Greek paper. The folks at the Greek Treasury have missed these simple points. Thus, the aforementioned issue was simply too large for the markets and failed to sustain prices achieved on placement – within just two days after the issue, price fell 3.5%.


Which brings us to the next week – it is expected that the Greeks will be at the markets again, this time with a €5 billion of new 10-year paper. Even to have a go, the Greeks will have to push spreads on their paper over the German bund to a stratospheric height. Currently – 10-year Greek bonds are yielding 6.5%, up from 5.8% back in the end of December 2009 and 1.5 percentage points above their levels in November 2009. But this will have to rise. 7% anyone? Possible.


Short positions in Greek bonds are also signaling that the demand for new issue will be weak. Shorts in Greek bonds have risen to 9.82% up 0.24 percentage points in the first two weeks of February and 1.58 percentage points relative to the end of December 2009. But now they are being closed off. Closing the short means that demand for bonds rises, artificially, in the market – as bonds are being withdrawn for a return to the lender. But this demand is not about market appetite for bonds. Instead it is about a technical need for a re-purchase. With this demand pathway becoming more exhausted in recent days, there will be added pressure on new bond pricing – another aspect of the market the Greeks seemingly do not take into account
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But politicians and their public servants, ignorant as they may be of the markets, might have something else on their minds. Greek’s reckless and silly issuance patterns are driven by more than markets considerations. They are driven by gargantuan deficits and debt overhang – with €20 billion of maturing debt that needs to be rolled over around April this year alone - and the willingness of the Greek Government to sacrifice its own taxpayers (remember – higher yields mean higher cost of borrowing, to be carried by the future taxpayers) in order to force the EU to bailout the country. This strategy, similar to the game of chicken in which both participants hold equivalently credible threats, but one faces asymmetrically higher costs in the case of ‘no bailout’ outcome) is something that the EU leaders themselves do not seem to comprehend.


While the EU is sitting on its hands and issuing conflicting and irresolute statements on the matter, the Greeks are heading straight into a fiasco, should they fail to place new bonds at yields proximate enough to the current 6.5%. At the same time, failure to place this issue will push the Greeks even closer to a direct default on debt, imposing even more pressure on the EU to urgently deal with the matter.


If the EU fails to bail out the Greeks on this round, the Euro will be equivalent to the Titanic grinding against the iceberg. The Greeks will always have an option to walk away from the common currency and default outright – the consequences will be tough, but more palatable than the ones which will hit the country should it go down alongside the Euro. First move advantage is real in the game of chicken.
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