What A Difference A Day Made!
According to a once famous statement by the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a week can often be a long time in politics. But when it comes to financial market crises the situation often feels more like a line from the Dinah Washington version of the old María Méndez Grever song: “What a difference a day made”. The day in this case was last Wednesday, at least for those of us here in Spain, since it was on Wednesday that the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded Spanish Sovereign debt to AA from AA+. As a result the cost of insuring such debt using credit default swaps (CDS) surged at one point to a record 211 basis points according to CMA DataVision prices. Contracts on Greece and Portugal also rose sharply, Greece climbed 42 basis points to 865.5, while Portugal jumped 20 to 406.
Standard & Poor’s justified their downward revision on the basis of their medium-term macroeconomic projections. In particular the agency cited heavy private sector indebtedness (of around 178% of GDP), an inflexible labor market (they expect unemployment to remain around 21% throughout 2010), and a fairly low export capacity (Spain’s exports only amount to around 25% of GDP) and a lack of external price competitiveness. All these factors they feel are likely to mean that Spain will have low growth between at least now and 2016, a factor which will make the combined burden of private and public indebtedness harder to service.
And despite the fact that Spanish Deputy Finance Minister Jose Manuel Campa stepped forward to say he was “surprised” by the move, arguing they are based on overly pessimistic growth forecasts, the fact is it is very hard to disagree with the S&P conclusions, as investors across the globe well understand. Even the EU Commission recently responded to Spain’s Stability Programme by stating that the growth forecast it contained was far too optimistic, and the IMF are even more pessimistic than the Commission.
And with the CDS prices, bond spreads for Spain, Greek, Portuguese, Italian, and Irish bond all widely on Wednesday, with yields on Greece’s two-year bonds briefly hitting an incredible 21%, following Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the country’s sovereign debt ratings to junk status the day before. This development forced the EU’s hand, and officials had to go rushing to the microphone to reassure investors that Greece would soon be able to access an aid package, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel stating that talks to provide aid should be accelerated.
Then the numbers started to be filtered out, and evidently they were much larger than many had been expecting. According to press reports IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn told German policymakers that Greece might need EUR120-130bn over three years, a number which the German press quickly calculated would mean that the German contribution might then go up to EUR25bn.
Certainly, at the point of writing we still don’t know what the exact number will be – and it is not even sure they have decided yet – but the reality is that once the EUR120-130bn number is out there from an authoritative source, it will be hard not to hit it, if not exceed it.
Then followed the announcement that IMF staff have reached an agreement with the Greek authorities on a 3-year program that will include draconian fiscal cuts (of the order of 10pc of GDP) and a series of structural measures aimed at driving nominal wages lower, reforming the pension system and building better institutions. Thus, the message this weekend to investors is: stop worrying about Greece for the next three years; you can continue to speculate in the secondary market, but the Greek government will be fine. And debt restructuring with the private sector now seems to be off the table for, at least for as long as the Greek government stick with the conditions – which will obviously be the aspect to watch carefully going forward. And even if there is an eventual default, the main counterparty will be other European governments (and the taxpayers who back them) and not private bondholders.
On the other hand, Europe’s institutions have, at a stroke, opened themselves up to a large slice of what is known as “moral hazard”, since the implicit message is : what we are doing for Greece we’ll do for any other Euro-zone country, if needed. So from this moment on, we are all in up to our necks, if not beyond.
This “historic moment” point of no return component did not escape the attention of Dominique Strauss-Kahn either, since following his meeting with German politicians he was at pains to stress the potential contagion effect a lack of backing Greece to the hilt would have had on the euro and the rest of Europe in the days to come. “I don’t want to hide behind a rosy picture. It’s not easy,” he said. All this “ can also have consequences far away. We have to face a difficult situation. We are confident we can fix it… But if we don’t fix it in Greece, it may have a lot of consequences on the EU.”
Highly respected US economist and Harvard University Professor Martin Feldstein went even further, saying that in his opinion Greece will eventually default on its bonds and he feared other euro-area nations may follow, most probably Portugal. “Greece is going to default despite all the talk, despite the liquidity package,” he said. Portugal’s name is mentioned frequently these days, since although the government deficit and debt levels are lower in Portugal than in Greece and the Portuguese government has much more fiscal credibility than its Greek counterpart, when you add private sector debt to the public part the number is not far short of 300% of GDP, and in fact the underlying problems are very similar.
But it isn’t only in the South the the EU has to worry, since problems in the East continue to fester. The Hungarian forint had a fairly hard time of it over the past few days, and had a two-day intraday loss 3.6 percent on Tuesday and Wednesday, its biggest such fall since March last year. At the same time the cost of credit default swaps on Hungarian debt rose 23.5 basis points to 240. The drop followed revelations from Hungary’s incoming Prime Minister Viktor Orban that the country’s underlying fiscal deficit had in fact been rather higher than the previous government had acknowledged. So contagion may now be also moving Eastwards, meaning that EU institutions may now increasingly face a battle on two fronts, since the wobbling won’t simply stop with Hungary, there is Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania to also think about (just to name the first three that come to mind).
As Angel Gurria, OECD Secretary General, said this week: “This is like Ebola. When you realise you have it you have to cut your leg off in order to survive, it is contaminating all the spreads and distorting all the risk assessment measures. It is also threatening the stability of the entire financial system.”