Saturday, November 13, 2010

Economics 13/11/10: EFSF, Ireland and a matter of contagion

let me ask the following question: if Ireland is nearing (or already in - see here) a bailout from the EFSF, what does this imply to the overall Euro area stability? Funny thing - it turns out that a little old Ireland can give a big young Euro quite a headache because of the way EFSF is structured.

Let’s step back and take a look at the promise EFSF attempts to deliver.

The fund, set up back in May this year, was supposed to provide an emergency funding backstop to countries finding themselves in a liquidity squeeze (unable to borrow in the markets).

There two basic problems with this idea from the point of view contagion from Ireland

  • Ireland’s crisis is that of insolvency, not of a liquidity squeeze 9although it is increasingly looking like the latter will come in the end). If EFSF were to be explicitly used to address Ireland crisis, then Irish Government will be de facto borrowing from the fund with no hope of repaying it ever back (recall – the lending rates under EFSF should be set close to the market rates, which means, say 7-8% currently, which in turn automatically means we can’t be expected to repay this). If so, then any borrower, I repeat – any borrower – from EFSF will not repay the funds borrowed. And this means EFSF borrowings will have to be covered collectively out of the joint funds of the entire Eurozone. You can pretty much count PIIGS out of funding it – they’ll be the very same borrowers. Which leaves it to France and Germany (Belgium hardly can pay much and Austria has it’s own problems etc) to cover the entire fund.
  • EFSF own structure implies high risk of contagion from Ireland.

That second point is slightly technical and requires some explaining to do.

One can make an argument that Ireland, if it borrows from EFSF, will trigger an increase in the Euro zone systemic risk. EFSF is set up similar to Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) with a "credit enhancement" that allows the senior debt tranche to retain higher risk rating because junior tranches are the ones that will carry the first hit on the whole package in the case of default.

The lags in the disbursement of funding and the capped nature, plus ‘enhancement’ bit of the CDO implies that countries in trouble will have to get into the funding stream as early as possible – as there is quick exhaustion of drawdown funds in the EFSF due to the knock on effect on CDO rating. This is known as an accelerated negative feedback mechanism – as sovereign comes under pressure, sovereigns are encouraged to race into EFSF, which removes their own bonds and capacity to carry debt out of the senior CDO tranche and increases their presence in the junior tranches.

So the guaranteed pool of liabilities increases by the amount country borrows from the fund, but the senior pool decreases by the contribution of this country to the fund. This means that as Ireland joint EFSF, it’s past ‘good credit’ rating falls to zero in the senior CDO tranche, its ‘bad debt’ risk contributes to the reduced quality of the liabilities held by the EFSF. Pressure rises on AAA rating of EFSF, unless EFSF draws more of AAA-rated countries debt into its senior tranche to offset this. EFSF will have to expand to be able to do both: lend out to Ireland and maintain AAA rating. Which, of course means that other EFSF contributors will need to issue more debt to recapitalize EFSF. Which means their own AAA ratings are becoming threatened as well.

You see where it all leads, now, don’t you?

The greater is the number of countries seeking help and/or the greater is the overall demand for EFSF funds, the greater the required buffer funding increases from the remaining EFSF-lending AAA-rated sovereigns. All of which, in plain English means that the EFSF will run into its own lending limits quicker if Ireland were to go into borrowing from it. Much quicker than a simple level of our borrowing would suggest.

Now, any sovereign with an once of sense now will know that a race to tap EFSF is on. The faster you get to it to borrow from it, the more likely you’ll arrive to the borrowing window before the limits are reached. Portugal, Spain and possibly even Italy are in the race.

This is why the markets have never been easy about the entire EFSF – they know that Ireland tapping into EFSF simply does two things:
  1. It delays the inevitable restructuring of the massive debts accumulated on the Irish economy side – either sovereign or banks or households or any two or all three. EFSF does not remove the need for such a restructuring. It simply delays it.
  2. It signifies an exponential increase in the probability of EFSF acting as a conduit for contagion from the PIIGS to the rest of the Euro area.
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