Bloomberg reported overnight that Greek bondholders were preparing to lose 60% on their investments. This is much bigger than the constructive default of 21% proposed with the second bailout in July. A big cut in the value of Greek bonds will cause major problems for German and French banks — and the ECB itself.
Rumors have been floating around the markets for days about a managed default of Greek debt at around the 50%, or greater, level and an occasional brief or cryptic comment has been made publically by EU officials. While this news was reported by the Helicopter Economics Investing Guide blog days ago, it is only just now filtering into the mainstream news services even though a large cut on Greek debt is an arithmetic inevitability. The only alternative would be a second bailout package several times larger than the proposed 109 billion euros (say 500 billion euros or more). Considering that populations of the EU countries are hostile to spending even the 109 billion euros, additional bailout funding is highly unlikely.
Bloomberg quoted a number of well-placed financial executives, including the CEO of Deutsche Bank, in its report indicating a general consensus was building that Greek bondholders would accept a deep reduction in their holdings. There ECB (European Central Bank) seems to be a major exception however. The ECB had amassed a considerable holding of Greek debt earlier on in an attempt to hold down interest rates there. Interest rates have since gone as high as 141% on Greek one-year governments. The ECB subsequently bought up debt from Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy to hold interest rates down in those countries. Investors should expect that ultimately these efforts will prove just as successful as they have in Greece.
Recapitalization (a euphemism for "bailout") will be necessary for EU banks if they have to take major losses on their Greek loans. Dexia, the largest bank in Belgium, folded almost overnight recently and its exposure to Greek debt was only a little over 1% of its loan portfolio — and this was before talk of a 60% haircut for Greek bonds. Imagine what would happen to banks with larger exposures? EU banks also hold substantial amounts of loans to Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The largest holders of Greek debt by far are of course Greek banks themselves. Proton Bank recently closed there, but officials made it clear that it was because of alleged criminal activity and not because of the debt crisis.
Sovereign credit and bank downgrades throughout the EU are becoming increasingly common. S&P downgraded Spain's long-term credit rating from AA to AA- with a negative outlook (meaning more cuts are likely) today. The agency predicted Spain would miss its deficit cutting targets for 2011 and 2012. S&P downgraded the credit ratings of a number of Spanish banks three days ago including Santander (STD). Credit Suisse analysts just declared the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to be the "most vulnerable" bank in Europe. RBS is 87% owned by the UK government. Credit rating agency Fitch threatened across the board downgrades of the banks yesterday. This potential downgrade would impact Barclays (BCS), BNP Paribas (FR: BNP), Credit Suisse (CS), Deutsche Bank (DB), Goldman Sachs (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS), and Société Générale (FR:GLE) among others.
Perhaps in the next few weeks there will be some temporary resolution to the Greek debt crisis. Unless the cut that bondholders are forced to take is big enough, it won't last however. Whatever happens with Greece won't solve the problems in Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and possibly in Belgium. To be effective, the recapitalization (bailouts) of EU banks will have to be substantial. This will by necessity involve using money printing to resolve a debt crisis. That's actually already been done since 2008 and look at what great shape the global financial system is in now.
Author: "Inflation Investing - A Guide for the 2010s"
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
This posting is editorial opinion. There is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.