Is Greek Crisis a Precursor to a “Global Margin Call”?

It seems like 90% of the countries in the world are printing money and issuing debt in a desperate attempt to solve a crisis caused by too much debt. The problem is that if 90% of the countries are issuing debt and the 10% aren’t willing to buy the debt, what happens? The danger is that most of this debt is being issued on a short-term basis, so rollover risk is huge. Soaring interest rates would destroy the world economic system. This problem is a bug in search of a windshield with an 18 wheeler barreling toward the bug.

Is Greek Crisis a Precursor to a “Global Margin Call”?

Two readers, Don B and Marshall Auerback, pointed to a Ambrose Evans-Pritchard story at the Telegraph which argues the the sovereign debt perturbations have the potential to have ramifications as serious as the subprime/Alt-A crisis. Now Evans-Pritchard has a tendency to the apocalyptic, but he also made some astute calls in 2007 and 2008 (as in not buying the commodities bubble and related resurgence of inflation theme, and seeing deflation as the real underlying risk).

And here he connects some important dots. It isn’t just that bond yields on Greece have spiked up; the other countries seen as being big external debt risks are facing bond rollovers soon:
The world risks a replay of the Lehman collapse if this runs unchecked, this time involving sovereign dominoes.

Barclays Capital says the net external liabilities of Greece are 87pc of GDP, or €208bn (£182bn). Spain is worse at 91pc (€950bn), and Portugal worse yet at 108pc (€177bn); Ireland is 68pc (€123bn), Italy is 23pc, (€347bn). Add East Europe’s bubble and foreign debts top €2 trillion.

The scale matches America’s sub-prime/Alt-A adventure and assorted CDOs and SIVS of the Greenspan fling. The parallels are closer than Europe cares to admit. Just as Benelux funds and German Landesbanken bought subprime debt for high yield with AAA gloss, they bought Spanish Cedulas because these too had a safe gloss – even though Spain’s property boom broke world records. They thought EMU had eliminated risk: it merely switched exchange risk into credit risk.

A fat chunk of Club Med debt has to be rolled over soon. Capital Economics said the share of state debt maturing this year is even higher in Spain (17pc) than in Greece (12pc), though Spain’s Achilles’ Heel is mortgage debt.

The risk is the EMU version of Mexico’s Tequila crisis or Asia’s crisis in 1998.

Both Evans-Pritchard and Simon Johnson regarded the G-7 response to the pressures building as insufficient. First Johnson:

The entirely pointless G7 meeting this weekend only served to underline the fact that Europe is again entering a serious economic crisis….

The Europeans with deep-pockets are doing nothing – except insist that all countries under pressure cut their budgets quickly and in ways that are probably politically infeasible. This kind of precipitate fiscal austerity contributed directly to the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The International Monetary Fund was created after World War II specifically to prevent such a situation from recurring…

Dominique Strauss-Khan, the Managing Director of the IMF, said Thursday on French radio that the Fund stands ready to help Greece. But he knows this is wishful thinking.

“Going to the IMF” brings with it a great deal of stigma. European governments are unwilling to take such a step as it could well be their last.

The IMF is supposed to provide only “balance of payments” lending. That doesn’t fit well when a country is in a currency union such as the euro, which floats freely and does not have a current account issue, and the main problem is just the budget.

Greece and the other weak eurozone countries need euro loans, not any other currency. If the IMF lent euros, that would be distinctly awkward – as this is what the European Central Bank (ECB) is supposed to control.

Sending Greece to the IMF would result in some international “burden sharing,” as it would be IMF resources – from all its member countries around the world – on the line, rather than just European Union funds. But is the US really willing to burden share through the IMF? After all, Europe has long refused to confront the trouble in its weaker countries, now known as PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain)? How would the Chinese react if such a proposition came to the IMF?

Would the Europeans really want the IMF and its somewhat cumbersome rules to get involved – this would be a huge loss of prestige. It could also lead to some perverse outcomes – you never know what the IMF and the US Treasury (and Larry Summers) will come up with in terms of needed policies (ask Korea about 1997-98; not a good experience). The European Union (EU) has handled IMF recent engagement well in eastern Europe (from the EU perspective), but that was seen as the EU’s backyard. If the eurozone is in trouble, everyone will be paying much more attention – no more sweetheart deals.

The IMF gave eastern Europe amazingly good deals over the past 2 years (by IMF standards). Would this fly with financial markets in the sense of restoring confidence in the PIIGS and their medium-term fiscal futures?

Does the IMF really have enough resources to backstop all the PIIGS? …

The IMF could play a constructive “technical assistance role” alongside the European Commission, but everyone would want to keep this pretty low profile….

The IMF cannot help in any meaningful way. And the stronger EU countries are not willing to help – in part because they want to be tough, but also because they do not have effective mechanisms for providing assistance-with-strings. Unconditional bailouts are simple – just send a check. Structuring a rescue package that will garner support among the German electorate – whose current and future taxes will be on the line – is considerably more complicated.

The financial markets know all this and last week sharpened their swords. As we move into this week, expect more selling pressure across a wide range of European assets.

And Evans-Pritchard:

The EU’s refusal to offer Greece anything beyond stern words and a one-month deadline for harsher austerity – while admirable in one sense – is to misjudge how fast confidence is ebbing. Greece’s drama has already metastasised into a wider systemic crisis.

We do have a factor here that could get the reluctant Europeans, meaning the Germans in particular, to act, namely, that Eurobanks are still wobbly and are not doubt exposed directly and indirectly to a European sovereign debt crisis. There is no way to avoid rescue operations of some sort, it’s merely a matter of picking which poison. Do they want to face the ugly bailout of countries they see as profligate, or wait till it morphs into a crisis and have to put their banks on emergency life support? The problem is the latter is politically more palatable, even though ultimately more destructive, since a lot of collateral damage will occur in the wave that hits the banks.