19th March 2012
Today will see an auction which will determine the final value of the credit default swaps which were written on Greek government debt. So we should see some form of closure on this matter. We will also find out what the net exposure actually was with estimates ahead of the event being around US $3.2 billion although as it is an not an exchange traded market there is more doubt about the exact number than if it was. If it does turn out to be of such size then it will reinforce my theme that whilst Credit Default Swaps are a factor they have turned out to be a much smaller factor than many have claimed along the way.
The European Financial Stability Fund
The EFSF will today loan Greece some 5.9 billion Euros and this represents two significant factors. Firstly we have been seeing more and more of the components of the second bailout for Greece coming into play, and this is the first tranche of actual payment. Secondly the EFSF will assume a large role in this bailout which is a considerable change in the scope and size of its actions.
Those who have followed my description of it as an unstable lifeboat prone to capsizing will be aware that I feel that this is a risky move. Let me give you an example of this. Until recently the EFSF found its ability to raise money so restricted it was reduced to borrowing on a six monthly basis (17th of January and 21st of February) rather than the ten or twenty years of its plans. Now suddenly its Chief Executive talks of issuing thirty -year debt. Only an expansion of sixty fold! If I wished to be harsher I would point out that there have been times when the EFSF has been reduced to issuing three month debt.
Indeed if one looks for the time period over which the EFSF has raised today's money it is not possible to say as it has not raised it and will have to rely on the European Central Bank's largesse for now. So the "pack of cards" which is the financing system of the EFSF looks even more unstable to me just as it embarks on a big expansion of its operations. It is at least advancing into calm seas as following the three-year liquidity operations of the ECB which supplied over a trillion Euros we are seeing much calmer credit markets. But when rough seas return we will see that the EFSF has a narrow margin of operation leading to tweo possible problems.
1. Its cost of funding (which is passed onto Greece) could rise to uneconomic levels for Greece.
2. The EFSF may not be able to fund itself at all as it usually operates on a "just in time" basis and has no capital.
The Prime Minister Lucas Papademos was interviewed in the Financial Times and amidst the hyperbole we did get some confessions as well as some extraordinary claims. There were also two rather remarkable understatements!
"However, in the short term we are still experiencing negative side effects
The weakening of economic activity and the increase in unemployment were greater than initially expected."
Later on he is kind enough to specify the side effects.
"The country is in the fifth year of recession, unemployment is about 20 per cent, youth unemployment is close to 50 per cent,"
"Side effects" does not really cover it, does it? If it was a drug it would deserve to lose its licence for sale. Another problem area in the interview was the lack of implementation of economic reform.
"There have been implementation delays and gaps – there is no question about this.
One reason was that policies were not implemented in a timely manner.
provided the policies are implemented fully"
Of course according to Prime Minister Papademos this time is different although I note he adds the rider "if implemented effectively". Indeed I detect a clash between his previous central banker caution and the hyperbole of a Euro zone official. You see whilst he talks of "a virtuous circle of structural reform, increasing activity and faster fiscal consolidation" I note that he says "it should be sufficient". Also I note that he is very cautious about Greece returning to financial markets and funding herself.
"If by 2015 market access is not possible then it may be necessary to rely more on official funding."
And as a final point whilst I go out of my way to avoid politics even to me the break-up of the Greek political system means that the quote below is misleading.
"A significant factor that can help to this end is that now Greece's two major political parties are committed to the new programme."
It remains to be seen how many votes they will get in the upcoming elections.
What is happening in Greece's economy?
If we consider how rose-tinted official statements usually are there is something a touch ominous about the statement by the European Unions special task force head in Athens that Greek exports will probably decline in 2012. It is not helped by the fact that due to strike there will be no ferry services in Greece either today or tomorrow. Whilst many may be less concerned by the fact that a 48 hour strike by lawyers starts tomorrow it does reinforce the image of a country almost at war with itself. A gunman at the Athens tax office does not help either.
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