Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Greeks v. Banks

We'll see tomorrow if the Greek parliament approves the austerity measures and the deep-discount privatizations the ECB and the richer European countries are demanding for another alleged "bailout." To me, the most likely scenario floating around is that the Greeks will go along with the demands for legislative actions tomorrow, and then just not implement most of them as they come due.

If the parliamentarians are paying attention to the riots in the streets, though, they just
might say "no" to the package. If that happens, we'll have to see what ensues. A collapse of the Eurozone is a real possibility, and that certainly would be disruptive to the world economy.

Of course, there are some of us who think it just might be time to do it and have done with it. Having a single monetary policy and more than two dozen fiscal policies, from my perspective, is not a formula for success. It worked well enough when credit was cheap, borrowing standards were lax, and government leaders could buy support with all that borrowed money. Granted, the Greeks went a bit more overboard than most — and lied their way into the Eurozone to begin with — but the
system was and is essentially flawed.

Whatever the original sins of Greek leaders, though, I could not condemn them if they tell the rest of Europe to screw itself. The interest Greece has to pay on the debt it incurs right now is in the junk bond category. How much higher could it go, and would it really make a difference? Greece can't afford to pay current rates, so higher rates mean nothing. The only sensible thing to do is default now, rather than enter into dubious refinancing schemes and then default for even more later.

The popular jargon for the current bailout proposal is "kicking the can down the road." It makes sense, though, to look at how the road might change a few kicks ahead.

Sarkozy has worked out a deal with private French banks that hold Greek debt to, essentially, roll it over — offer new loans to pay off the old ones (only at higher rates.) The immediate advantage of that for the banks is that it would mean they will not have to
write down the bad debt for another three to five years, leaving their balance sheets looking healthier for a while. If the bailout deal goes through, we can expect other private holders of Greek debt to do the same.

back a little bit, though, and we see what French, German, Swiss, Belgian, and other private European banks have been doing since the last bailout — that is, selling off their Greek debt to the European Central Bank. If they can continue to do that, private losses can be minimized. Losses by the ECB would have to be offset by infusions of capital from European governments — in other words, by the European people as a whole. Fat cats, hedge funds, and corporate investors will transfer their gambling losses to ordinary people.

For the Greeks themselves, selling off public assets like their ports, utilities, railroads, etc. at this time seems like an especially foolish move. As the people in the streets and squares of Greek cities understand very well, not only would the sale of those assets sharply increase unemployment, but they would bring only a fraction of what they're worth. It makes a lot more sense to default first — tell their creditors they're not going to be paid — and save the assets for later sale, when Greece really needs the money. Cut off from credit, Greece finally would be forced to slice away the corruption and patronage from its economy. The nest egg provided by asset sales, if they turn out to be necessary, could be the country's key to survival.

US exposure to Greek debt is quite small, and the predicted domino effect on Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy also would not have great impact on American holders of European debt. What we
don't know, however, is the exposure of US banks and related corporations in the form of credit default swaps. How much of the impending European losses are insured in the US, or in European subsidies of US banks?

Well, we're still kind of in the
process of writing the transparency rules on derivatives, so nobody actually knows.

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