Sunday, October 31, 2010

Angela Merkel Consigns Ireland, Portugal And Spain To Their Fate

¹²Angela Merkel Consigns Ireland, Portugal And Spain To Their Fate

Germany has had enough. Any eurozone state that spends its way into a debt crisis or cannot adapt to a monetary union set for Northern rhythms will face "orderly" bankruptcy.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard | 31 October 2010

Angela Merkel needs a treaty change to prevent the German constitutional court from blocking the bail-out fund as a breach of the EU law

Bondholders will discover burden-sharing. Debt relief will be enforced, either by 'interest holidays' or 'haircuts' on the value of the bonds. Investors will pay the price for failing to grasp the mechanical and obvious point that currency unions do not eliminate risk: they switch it from exchange risk to default risk.

What were investors thinking when they bought Greek 10-year bonds at 26 basis points over Bunds in 2007, below the spread between British Columbia and Quebec? "We must keep in mind the feelings of our people, who have a justified desire to see that private investors are also on the hook, and not just taxpayers," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Or in the words of Bundesbank chief Axel Weber: "Next time there is a problem, (bondholders) should be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. So far the only ones who have paid for the solution are the taxpayers."

These were the terms imposed by Germany at Friday's EU summit as the Quid Pro Quo for the creation of a 'permanent' rescue fund in 2013. A treaty change will be rammed through under Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty, a trick that circumvents the need for full ratification. Eurosceptics can feel vindicated in warning that this "escalator" clause would quickly be exploited for 'unchecked treaty-creep'.

Mrs Merkel needs a treaty change to prevent the German constitutional court from blocking the bail-out fund as a breach of the EU law, and a treaty change is what she will get. "This will strengthen my position with the Karlsruhe court," she admitted openly. One might argue that bondholders should have been punished for their errors long ago.

The stench of moral hazard has been sickening, on both sides of the Atlantic. An orderly bankruptcy along lines routinely engineered by the International Monetary Fund is exactly what Greece needs. It makes no sense to push Greece further into a debt compound spiral by raising public debt from 115% of GDP at the outset of the "rescue" to 150% at the end of the ordeal. If you strip out the humbug, the Greek package allows banks and funds to shift roughly €150bn of liabilities onto EU governments, or the European Central Bank, or the IMF. Greek citizens are being subjected to the full pain of austerity under false pretences, without being offered the cure of debt relief.

It is in reality a bail-out for investors. There is a touch of cruelty in this. Needless to say, the Greek Left has noticed. A socialist dissident from the "anti-Memorandum" bloc (ie, anti EU-IMF) is likely to win the Athens region in coming elections.

Note too that the ruling socialists have fallen to 25% in the Portuguese polls, while the Communists and hard-left Bloco are together up to 18%. Ain't seen nothing, you might say. Yet opening the door to bondholder 'haircuts' at this delicate juncture— with spreads reaching fresh records in Ireland last week, and Portugal struggling to pass a budget— is to toss a hand-grenade into the eurozone periphery. We now know that that ECB's Jean-Claude Trichet warned EU leaders on Thursday night that it was dangerous to stir up this hornets' nest, and moreover that the politicians did not understand what they were unleashing. He was slammed down acrimoniously by French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who later denied that he lost his temper.

"Mr Trichet expressed a number of reserves. There was a debate, there is always a debate, but the European Council took its decision," he said. "It is wrong to say I was irritated. You can reproach heads of state for all kinds of things in a democracy, but I don't think you can reproach them for not being aware of 'the seriousness of the situation'," he snorted.

Mr Sarkozy was not going to let his Brussels 'triomphe' slip away after stitching up EU affairs once again in a pre-emptive deal with Germany and imposing his will. The notion that the Franco-German axis still runs Europe is potent politics in France, even if the decisions actually reached are often of little value or— as in this case— ill-advised. Such is the chemistry of EU summits, where mad things happen.

Spain's premier Jose-Luis Zapatero knew he had been mugged. "We need to listen carefully to what the head of the ECB says about the rescue mechanism. Great care is called for because this message is risky," he said.

Eurozone sovereign states must issue €915bn in new bonds next year, according to the UBS, either to roll over debt or to cover very big deficits— though it is hard to outdo Ireland's deficit of 32% of GDP in 2009. Yet investors have just been told in blunt terms to charge a hefty risk premium on any peripheral debt that expires after 2013, with great confusion over what happens even before that date. Can any investor be sure what the terms will be if Ireland or Portugal needs to access the EU's bail-out fund next week, or next month, or next year? Are haircuts already de rigueur?

A study by Giada Giani at Citigroup entitled "Bondholders Moving Back Home" said data from the second quarter reveals a sharp drop in foreign ownership of debt from Greece (-14%), Portugal (-12%), Spain (-8%), and Ireland (-5%). Local banks have stepped into the breach, borrowing cheaply from the ECB to buy their own state debt at higher yields in a 'carry trade' that concentrates risk. These four countries account for the lion's share of the €448bn in ECB funding for banks (Spain €98bn, Greece €94bn). Frankfurt is propping up this unstable edifice. Mr Trichet may well fret.

A strong case can be made that Spain has decoupled from the other PIIGS in pain, though the deficit will still be 6% next year, and the economy is at serious risk of a double-dip recession as wage cuts and higher taxes bite in earnest. But none are safe yet. An ominous pattern has emerged across much of the eurozone periphery: tax revenue keeps falling short of what was hoped for. Austerity measures are eating deeper into the economy than expected, forcing further fiscal cuts. It goes too far to call this a 'self-feeding spiral', but such policies test political patience to the snapping point.

There is little that these nations can do in the short-run as EMU members. They cannot offset fiscal tightening with full monetary stimulus or a weaker exchange rate— as Britain can. All they do can is 'soldier on', sell family silver to the Chinese and Gulf Arabs, beg the ECB to join the currency war to bring down the euro, and pray that the fragile global recover does not sputter out.

Chancellor Merkel is ultimately correct. A mechanism for sovereign defaults is entirely healthy. Had it been in place long ago, EMU would have been stronger. The proper timing for this was at the Maastricht Treaty, or Amsterdam, or at the latest Nice, but in those days the EU elites were still arrogantly dismissive about the full implications of a currency union. To wait until now borders on carelessness.


EU 'Haircut' Plans Rattle Bondholders

Investors face large potential losses on eurozone debt under German plans likely to win backing from EU leaders on Friday— risking a boycott of Greek, Irish, and Portuguese bonds.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, and Bruno Waterfield In Brussels | 28 October 2010

Front row left to right, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite. Back row left to right, Portugal's Prime Minister Jose Socrates and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the EU summit in Brussels Photo: AP

Germany has agreed to give the EU's €440bn (£383bn) bail-out fund permanent status rather than letting it expire in 2013 as planned, but only as part of a "Crisis Resolution Mechanism" that forces bondholders to share losses from any future bail-outs. The fund must be anchored in EU law through changes to the Treaties in order to head off legal challenges at Germany's constitutional court. A draft proposal from Berlin— now serving as a working text for the European Commission— calls for "orderly insolvency" by eurozone countries in trouble.

Details are sketchy, but this "Chapter 11" for sovereign states would include an extension of debt maturities, a "holiday" on interest payments for as long as needed to let debtors recover, and a suspension of bondholder rights. The blueprint is akin to debt-restucturing schemes used by the International Monetary Fund. Under a Finnish proposal, there are likely to be "Collective Action Clauses" in all new bond issues to prevent minority bondholders blocking a default deal.

European President Herman van Rompuy will be tasked to draw up a blueprint for the crisis mechanism. There may also be a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism (SDRM). Berlin is determined to avoid a repeat of the €110bn bailout for Greece when banks were shielded from losses, leaving eurozone taxpayers facing the full cost.

Silvio Peruzzo, Europe economist at RBS, said talk of "haircuts" for bondholder at this delicate juncture could backfire. "The debt crisis in the eurozone periphery has not been sorted out. These countries need markets to keep buying the bonds, but investors are going to stay away if you open the door to private sector pain," he said.

It is unclear whether the latest bond jitters in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal is linked to growing awareness of the German plans. Each country has its own troubles. Yields on Ireland's 10-year bonds briefly rose to a post-EMU high above 7% on Thursday, partly due to a stand-off between Dublin and angry funds facing losses on the junior debt of Anglo Irish Bank. However, EU officials fear that the proposals could make it harder for such high-debt states to tap debt markets, risking a self-fulfilling [[and ultimately intractable: normxxx]] crisis.

Germany is likely to win backing in principle at Friday's EU summit in Brussels since it has already struck a deal with France, and Britain has dropped its opposition to treaty changes. Brussels believes it is possible to invoke Article 48.6, which allows changes to the Lisbon Treaty without the political trauma of referenda or full ratification in all 27 states. This "simplified revision" can be used to cover matters in Part III of the Treaty, but the EU risks a political backlash if it tries to push through such a controversial plan by these means. Viviane Reding, the EU justice commissioner, said it was "suicidal" to tinker with the treaties so soon after the Lisbon storm.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also demanding EU powers to strip countries of their voting rights if they breach eurozone rules, but this has been dismissed by Brussels as "totally unacceptable" and will be blocked by other states. The summit was intended to endorse plans by an EU taskforce for a beefed-up Stability Pact but, as so often at EU meetings, France and Germany have run away with the agenda. The German proposals have a logic since they let struggling states claw their way out crisis by reducing debt. Greece's rescue risks failure because it will leave the country with public debt of 150% of GDP, near the 'Point Of No Return'.



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