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The Greek Tragedy: Could a ‘Haircut’ Help?

Debate has been raging as to whether the Greek economy can avoid bankruptcy. Just how big is the problem, what are the options and how is this impacting financial markets? 

Background to the Problem

Greece is around €300bn in debt. Putting that into context, its budget deficit is one of the highest in Europe and last year amounted to more than four times the Eurozone limit at 13.6% of GDP. This more than supports the country’s inclusion in the infamous ‘PIIGS’ acronym (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) used to refer to the areas of sovereign debt concern.

What’s Going On?

Despite the jobless rate reaching 16% (and a horrific 42.5% for youth), the Greek economy has seen only marginal deleveraging. Instead, people are depending on consumer credit to maintain their levels of expenditure and service their debts (i.e. paying credit card bills with other credit cards). Moreover, whilst many in the UK struggle to obtain loans from banks, the overall banking sector in Greece actually increased their credit availability, with the most significant increase going to the government itself.

Attempted Solutions

Last Thursday, Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the European Central Bank, announced that they would lend Greece €45bn in new loans. However, this alone, they acknowledge, is not enough. The ECB wants to see structural reforms and a good deal of privatization, with the claim that €50bn could be generated over 3 to 5 years to reduce debt/GDP from 160% to 140%.

What are the Complications?

Loans to ‘bailout’ struggling countries are partially funded by taxpayers from different countries within the EU. Therefore, the problem is not an isolated one. Furthermore, even after this loan and the privatization contributions, there will be a financing gap of €170bn between 2012 -14 which will need filling. European banks have to refinance €1.3tn maturing debt by end 2012 and are owed over €200bn already by the PIIGs for refinancing ops.

Could a Good ‘Haircut’ Help?

With so much talk of a ‘restructuring’, i.e. bond holders sharing some of the pain, it is interesting to hear the views of Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, an ECB executive board member on the subject. He maintains that these are not the tools by which Greece can save its economy but could cause a “Depression” and “banking system collapse”. Furthermore, those pointing to a compromise of a voluntary or ‘soft’ restructuring appear to be fooling themselves. According to him, there is “no such thing as an ‘orderly’ or ‘soft’ re-structuring” since ‘haircuts’ (a percentage knocked off the par value of a bond) would have to be forced by governments. Crucially, any type of restructuring would cause a panic in the markets and cause credit events reducing the value of these investment vehicles either way.

Yield on a 10 year Greek Government Bond (Orange), 10 year German Government Bond (white) and the spread between the two (yellow) - showing the higher premium demanded by investors for holding Greek debt, near historical highs - highlighting a heightened risk perceived by the markets.

So, What Are the Options?

As previously mentioned, a default on some of its debts would have dire consequences but the prospects for sustainable financial solvency appear weak with such a substantial deficit and the habits of borrowers and lenders not much improved. Most worrying, from the perspective of European stability is the recent comments from a Greek EU Commissioner that “The scenario of removing Greece from the euro is now on the table”. Therefore, although in stark contrast to statements by Greece’s Prime Minister and with France and Germany still heavily exposed to EU laggards, which together make a break up of the euro unlikely in the short-term, it is a fear weighing on investors minds.

How are the financial Markets Reacting?

Risk aversion is back on the rise. Investors are worried and, understandably, demanding higher premiums to lend to Greece. That’s not all. Other markets are suffering. “All sophisticated indicators of systemic risk, cross correlations of CDS and yield spreads show a high sensitivity to restructuring moves and are at levels higher than in September 2008”.

The Investment Insight: What Can You Do?

This has two consequences. Firstly, investors should be more cautious of an indiscriminate sell-off but secondly, this can be used as an opportunity to pick up high quality assets at a lower price. Be wary but remain opportunistic.

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Stagflation – A Risk Worth Noticing

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Much is made in the news of the risk of inflation. We can’t step far outside our doors without being faced with the challenges it brings. From shockingly high petrol prices to rising agriculture costs hitting our shopping bills, the fear is setting in. However, when we strip out these volatile elements, just how much of a problem is core inflation? Instead, with economic growth precariously fragile, when it does become a concern, won’t we be left fighting a ‘war on two fronts’? It’s time we start to notice the ‘Elephant in The Room’.

An Anaemic Recovery

The economic recovery remains weak. Still driven by the consumer, the environment for spending is tenuous. Retail sales for December were downgraded and January’s figures can only be described as “unspectacular”. We saw the first increase in the claimant count in four months (which would have been even higher had people not given up the job search entirely). Moreover, earnings growth slowed to the lowest rate in six months (from 2.5% to 2.0%). With Hometrack, the property analytics business, foreseeing homebuyers facing a continued struggle to obtain mortgages in 2011, the outlook for spending and GDP growth looks tough.

Source: Capital Economics “UK Labour Market Data” Regular pay growth slowed from 2.5% to 2.0% (Published end Feb 2011, data to end Dec / Jan)

Consumer Companies Highlight the Headwinds

Highlighting the problem were the many consumer companies missing Q410 earnings estimates and downgrading their forecasts for this year. Diageo, Colgate-Palmolive and P&G were among those that struggled to meet expectations. Falls in demand were blamed, with the situation looking none the rosier going forward. Renault predicts the demand for cars in their home market of France will fall by 8%. In addition, rising input costs is adding to woes. Pepsi is budgeting for a whopping 8 – 9.5% increase in the amount of capital they will spend on oil and agriculture commodities, which contributed to the firm lowering their forecast for earnings growth from low double digits to high single digits. The question on everyone’s lips is – can they continue to pass on higher costs to the consumer? With the aforementioned weakness, the most likely answer is “no”.

Source: Bloomberg. Next share price (white) and the Cotton price (orange) + >10% YTD already.

Inflation ‘Illusion’ Tempting Risky Action

So just how much of a problem is inflation, when compared to the weakness of the recovery? True, headline Inflation has held stubbornly above the Bank of England’s target at 3.7%. However, stripping out food and energy prices, core inflation falls to 2.9% and recent reports show that after excluding taxes, we hit the 2% jackpot. Regardless, the political environment poses a risk. The MPC (Monetary Policy Committee) is under immense pressure to defend its credibility after keeping rates on hold for 23 months consecutively. Markets are now pricing in a 25bps rise in May. Crucially, these expectations alone have consequences. In one week alone, more than 10 mortgage lenders pulled their best fixed rate deals – hitting credit availability to the already weakened consumer ‘spenders’.

Only an idiot fights a war on two fronts. ~ Londo Mollari, Babylon 5

Stagflation – A ‘War on Two Fronts’

This is the crux of the problem – promoting growth can at times risk inflation and fighting inflation can risk weakening growth. Currently the biggest challenge of the two is strengthening growth. If the recovery remains weak, then when inflation rises and poses a far more serious challenge, the government will not be able to implement policies to fight it without dragging the economy into another recession. The possibility of stagflation is real. In this situation the government will feel even more pressure to raise rates but unemployment will still be high and so if rates rise, many will suffer. At the moment the MPC have a “wait and see” attitude – let’s hope this continues and they don’t succumb to ‘peer pressure’ too soon.

EU Differentiation… The Key Points you should know…

“United we stand; divided we fall” Aesop (Ancient Greek Fabulist and Author of a collection of Greek fables. 620 BC-560 BC)

The problem with the “EU” banner is that it links together economies that are quite different from each other. Much press has been dedicated to the fate of the PIIGS – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain but it is interesting to compare journalistic exposure with economic impact. Greece Ireland and Portugal account for less than 5% of EU GDP. To save you shifting through pages of research – here are the key pertinent points for each economy… The structure follows that of my earlier assessment of the futility of EU bailout mechanisms–

  1. FLAWED LOGIC – what are the real issues?
  2. NOT SOLVING THE PROBLEM – will the economy in question be able to grow enough / will the debt burden be manageable enough so that it will fall as a % of GDP?
  3. UNCERTAINTY – what are the political issues?

Source: "Belgium Joins The PIIGS: And Then They Were Six" - Gavan Nolan, Econotwist The Swapper - learning and understanding the increasingly complex financial world.

Portugal – A Disappointing Deficit, Dipping Back Into Recession

  1. DISAPPOINTING DEFICIT and FOREIGN PRESSURE – Disappointed the market with its deficit reduction plan for this year, amounting to a value for the first 10 months of 2010 which was than for the whole of 2009 and forecasted to exceed the EU limit until at least 2012. Exposed to more foreign pressure with around 70% of its debt is held abroad
  2. LOW GROWTH – estimated to only amount to 1.3% for 2010 for an economy expected to fall into recession next yr
  3. POTENTIAL SOCIAL UNREST – planning to reduce its public workforce

Italy – Saved by its Savings, Economic Exposure but Debt Isolation

  1. TOO BIG TO BAIL OUT – second largest debt burden after Greece (public debt equates to 120% of GDP)
  2. LOW GROWTH

  • HOWEVER: High savings rate, exposure to German and Emerging Market economies, less dependant on foreign creditors and therefore more flexible

Ireland – The Public Prefers a Default

  1. HUGE BAILOUT – amounting to 60% of GDP vs. “only” 47% for Greece
  2. POTENTIAL FOR DEFAULT – 57% of the public believe the country will not be able to support the annual interest payments involved with this debt burden (€5bn over 9 years) and would prefer the government to DEFAULT on its commitments
  3. PROTEST and INTERNATIONAL IMPACT – 50,000 took to streets to protest against the Government’s plan to cut the budget deficit. The UK has £140bn exposure to Irish banks

Greece – Flirting with Insolvency

  1. STRUCTURAL LIMITATIONS“overblown state sector”, “uncompetitive and relatively closed economy”
  2. SOLVENCY – It has been argued that the bailout package will only prevent Greece from insolvency for ~a year
  3. CIVIL UNREST – has been seen in response to social program cutbacks

Spain – Pulling a “Sickie”

  1. UNEMPLOYMENT and a potential for DEFAULT – the highest in the EU at around 20% of the population. A third of private sector debt (€0.6tn) was generated from the housing boom and liable to default.
  2. INTEREST PAYMENTS HAVE JUMPED – Since Oct, yields have jumped from 4% to 5% leading to a larger debt burden as a percentage of GDP
  3. SOCIAL UNREST – Just the other week we saw one of the largest “sickies” thrown by their air traffic workers

Hungary – The Government Can’t Win

Although not within the PIIGS acronym – it is important nonetheless to mention this economy at this point and a great example of the potential impacts to investment. It’s a case that highlights the Government can’t win – if it decides that instead of implementing austerity programs eliciting social unrest, it will instead employ more crowd-pleasing reforms, it will get punished nonetheless….

  • DOWNGRADED – Moody’s has downgraded its debt to the lowest investment grade status. One more downgrade and it changes classification and those restricted to investing in Investment Grade debt only will be forced to sell, regardless of any other factors. Great opportunity to pick up dent at a discount (whilst watching the quality of the issuer!)
  • REASON – Short term (less antagonistic) measures are not sustainable – special taxes and utilising private pension schemes to fill holes! The Government is relying on future growth to afford its pension liability in the future and anyone not transferring to a state pension by end Jan may lose 70% of their pension value.

Contrast with the Core

Just to contast these economies with the one seeming to be driving force behind the union – Germany’s deficit could potentially fall to the 3% EU limit next year

INVESTMENT INSIGHT: When investing in the EU – differentiate between countries!