Monday, January 26, 2015

26/1/15: Markets v Greece: Too Cool for School... for now

There is much talk about the impact (or rather lack thereof) of Greek elections on the markets.

In fact, the euro continued to price in the effects of a much larger factor - the QE announcement by the ECB, the stock markets did the same. Only bonds and CDS markets reacted to the Greek elections, and even here the re-pricing of Greek risks was moderate so far (see chart below and the day summary for CDS - both courtesy of CMA).

The reason for this reaction is two-fold.

Firstly, Greece is a small blip on the overall radar map of Euro area's problems. Even in terms of Government debt. Here is the summary of the Government debt overhang levels (over and above 60% of debt/GDP benchmark) across the Euro area:

In simple terms, real problems for the euro, in terms of risk pricing, are in Italy, France and Spain.

Secondly, Greece is a political risk, not a financial risk to the Euro area. And it is a risk in so far, only, as yesterday's election increases the probability of a Grexit. But increasing probability of a Grexit does not mean that this increase is worth re-pricing. It is only worth worrying about if (1) increase in probability is significant enough, and (2) if elections changed the timing of the possible event, bringing it closer to today compared to previous markets expectations.

Now, here is the problem: neither (1) nor (2) have been materially changed by the Syriza victory last night. My comments to two publications yesterday and today, summarised below, explain.

Greek elections came as a watershed for both the markets analysts and the European elites, both of which expected a much weaker majority for the Syriza-led so-called 'extreme left' coalition. The final outcome of yesterday's vote, however, is far from certain, and this has been now fully realised by the markets participants.

The confrontation with the EU, ECB and the IMF, promised by Zyriza, is but one part of the dimension of the policy course that Greece will take from here on. Another part, less talked about today in the wake of the vote is accommodation.

Let me explain first why accommodation is a necessary condition for both sides in the conflict to proceed.

Greece is systemically important to the euro area, despite all claims by various European politicians to the contrary. Greece is carrying a huge burden of debt, accumulated, in part due to its own profligacy, in part due to the botched crisis resolution measures developed and deployed by the EU. It's debt is no longer held by the German, French and Italian banks, so much is true. German and French banks held some EUR27 billion worth of Greek Government debt at the end of 2010. This has now been reduced to less than EUR100 million. There is no direct contagion route from Greek official default to the euro area banking sector worth talking about. But Greek private sector debts still amount to roughly EUR10 billion in German and French banking systems (with more than EUR8 billion of this in German banks alone). Greek default will trigger defaults on these debts too, blowing pretty sizeable hole in the euro area banks.

However, lion's share of Greek public debt is now held in various European institutions. As the result, German taxpayers are on the hook for countless tens of billions in Greek liabilities via the likes of the EFSF and Eurosystem.

And then there is the reputational costs: letting Greece slip out into a default and out of the euro area will mark the beginning of an end for the euro, especially if, post-Grexit, Greece proves to be a success.

In short, one side of the equation - the Troika - has all the incentives to deal with Syriza.

One the other side, we can expect the fighting rhetoric of Syriza to be moderated as well. The reason for this is also simple: the EU-IMF-ECB Troika contains the Lender of Desperate Resort (the ECB) and the Lender of Last Resort (the IMF). Beyond these two, there is no funding available to Greece and Syriza elections promises make it painfully clear that it cannot entertain the possibility of a sharp exit from the euro, because such an exit would require the Government to run a full-blown budgetary surplus, not just a primary surplus. For anyone offering an end to austerity, this is a no-go territory.

So we can expect Syriza to present, in its first round of talks with the Troika, some proposals on dealing with the Greek debt overhang (currently this stands at around EUR 210 billion in excess debt over the 60% debt/GDP limit), backed by a list of reforms that the Syriza government can put forward in return for EU concessions on debt.

These reforms are the critical point to any future negotiations with the EU and the IMF. If Syriza can offer the EU deep institutional reforms, especially in the areas so far failed by the previous Government: improving the efficiency and accountability of the Greek public services, robust weeding out of political and financial corruption, and developing a functional system of tax collections, we are likely to see EU counter-offers on debt, including debt restructuring.

So far, Syriza has promised to respect the IMF loans and conditions. But its rhetoric about the end of Troika surveillance is not helping this cause of keeping the IMF calm - IMF too, like the ECB and the EU Commission, requires monitoring and surveillance of its programme countries. Syriza also promised to balance the budget, while simultaneously alleviating the negative effects of austerity. In simple, brutally financial terms, these sets of objectives are mutually exclusive.

With contradictory objectives in place, perhaps the only certainty coming on foot of the latest Greek elections is that political risks in Greece and the euro area have amplified once again and are unlikely to abate any time soon. Expect the Greek Crisis 4.0 to be rolling in any time in the next 6 months.

So in the nutshell, don't expect much of fireworks now - we all know two deadlines faced by Greece over the next month:

These are the markers for the markets to worry about and these are the timings that will start revealing to us more information about Syriza policy stance too. Until then, ride the wave of QE and sip that kool-aid lads... too cool to worry about that history lesson, for now...
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