Protecting Senior Bondholders

In his Sunday Independent column today, Colm McCarthy again makes the argument the Government is protecting – or being forced to protect – senior bondholders in order to protect European banks. 

It is entirely fair for our European partners to observe that we have brought this on ourselves but it is equally fair to note that in picking up the tab, the Irish are ‘taking one for the team’, in the phrase of Sharon Bowles, the British MEP who chairs the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. The team, in the form of the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the Franco-German political leadership, persist in the pretence that the protection of creditors of the bust Irish banks, at the expense of the Irish Exchequer, represents some form of generosity to Irish citizens and taxpayers.

Fortunately, the existing deal with our European partners is impractical as well as unfair. It has not worked, it will not work and there will be further rounds of modifications as Europe gropes towards a resolution of the banking and sovereign debt crises. It will not be enough, in regaining solvency, for the Irish Government to avoid further pay-offs to bondholders in Anglo and Irish Nationwide. The Irish Exchequer’s contributions to bank rescue have already destroyed the sovereign’s capacity to borrow. There is still an opportunity to avoid default on the sovereign debt of the state, but the ability to avoid this outcome is being undermined by the obligations undertaken to investors in bonds issued by insolvent banks.

The restoration of that ability requires, in addition to vigorous reductions in the budget deficit, that the remaining costs of rescuing the Irish banks be shared with their creditors and with the European institutions whose defence of bank bondholders has helped to create the current untenable situation.

Putting aside the relative costs to Ireland’s creditworthiness of defaulting on sovereign bonds compared to sovereign guarantees, oversimplified claims that senior bondholders are being protected to protect foreign banks are undermining support for necessary fiscal adjustments.  

The concerns of the ECB about balance sheet/precedent-related contagion does explain the absence of loss sharing for the roughly €3.5 billion of unguarnateed seniors in the defunct and depositor-less Anglo and INBS.   The constraints on loss sharing in the pillar banks are quite different. 

There is an effective instrument to impose losses on pillar-bank bondholders – bankruptcy.    Although we know the credit system is already impaired, making the pillar banks bankrupt would impair the credit (and payments) system to a significantly greater degree.   Also, it is conveniently ignored that depositors rank equally with senior bondholders under current law.    It might have been possible for the State to make depositors whole when the State was creditworthy.   That ship has sailed. 

Now I do think more should have been done early on to put in place a resolution regime to increase loss-sharing options.  However,  the legal avenues appear to be quite proscribed.    While I am not saying this is the end of the argument, given the damage done to public support for tough fiscal measures, anyone who pushes the line that losses should be imposed on broader bondholders has an obligation to explain how the legal obstacles could be overcome while protecting the credit system and protecting depositors.    It is emotionally satisfying to heap blame on a requirement to protect foreign banks.  The reality is more complex.

Strenthening the Ring-Fence (Warning: Wonkish)

Now that we’ve had a bit more time to digest the implications of the EU summit, I would be interested to hear more views on how the measures have strengthened or weakened the “ring-fence” beyond Greece, especially as it applies to Ireland.    The idea of a ring-fence is that measures to improve debt sustainability and the reliability of a lender of last resort attenuate potentially self-fulfilling expectations of default; that is, expectations of default that lead to higher interest rates, thereby increasing the probability of default (in part because countries get pulled into European crisis resolution mechanisms that threaten debt restructuring as part of subsequent financing packages and also because of worsening debt dynamics). 

I think it is fair to say there is general agreement that the interest rate reductions / maturity extensions strengthen the ring-fence given that they improve the chances of debt sustainability.   However, there also seems to be a view that the private-sector involvement (PSI) that is being applied to Greece weakens the ring-fence, as it increases the threat of that PSI being applied to other countries at a later stage.   The latter does not seem right to me.   It is widely recognised that Greece’s debt to GDP ratio makes debt restructuring inevitable.    From the point of view of the ring-fence beyond Greece, it would have been best to have decisive action on Greece’s debt, so that it is unlikely that the necessary PSI would have to be revisited in their case.   As it is, it is likely that further restructuring of Greece’s debt will have to take place, creating ongoing uncertainty about what the PSI element of the Eurozone crisis-resolution mechanisms is going to look like down the road, increasing the uncertainty facing other countries.   In other words, the problem (from the perspective of the ring-fence) is that too little PSI is being applied to Greece, not too much.

Some Cheerful Demographic Statistics

To take our minds off the heavier economic / financial topics for a while I thought I would share some thoughts provoked by the Annual Summary of Vital Statistics for 2010 published at the end of June. Taken in conjunction with the preliminary results of the 2011 Census, it reveals some surprisingly positive trends for a country in the throes of a very deep recession.

Our birth rate is holding up despite the surge in unemployment and the resumption of net emigration (even if at a more modest rate than previously feared).

Over 75,000 births were registered in 2008 – almost 60% more than in 1994 and the highest number recorded in modern times. However, this was probably the peak, as the annual total for 2010 was 2% lower than that for 2008, while the 2010Q4 figure was 4% lower than the corresponding figure for 2008.

The surge in births will have far-reaching implications for the economy’s medium-term prospects.  Most immediately it is placing pressure on the educational system, but over the longer run it could be argued that our relatively youthful population will bestow a competitve advantage relative to the rest of Europe, where the ageing of populations is becoming an acute problem.

Continue reading “Some Cheerful Demographic Statistics”

The Macroeconomic Challenges Facing Ireland

My talk at the MacGill Summer School yesterday was based on this paper.  Core point: I argue that last week’s European deal calls for an acceleration in the pace of Irish fiscal adjustment.

Update: The webcast for this session (also featuring David Begg, Brigid Laffan and Colm McCarthy) is available here.

Update:  The Irish Times carries a shorter, edited version of my talk in this article.

Forbearance and Frontrunning in Irish Property Markets

The most recent Financial Stability Report from the Bank of England warns about the danger to U.K. economic stability from excessive debt forbearance by U.K. domestic banks. The governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, put stress on this risk in his speech introducing the report (although he also noted that this does not mean that forbearance is always a bad thing). In the report, only the potential UK fallout from the Euro crisis ranks more highly than excessive debt forbearance on the list of risks to the UK banking system. This should ring alarm bells in Ireland, since the level of debt forbearance in Ireland at present is much higher than in the U.K.  Encouraging debt forbearance is a deliberate Irish government policy, and the extreme level of forbearance by domestic Irish institutions is storing up potential problems for the future.

There is a considerable overhang of unwanted or distressed (in some cases unfinished) property assets in Ireland (see Ronan Lyons and Namawinelake for discussion). The smart-money players (foreign-owned banks with Irish property assets) might front-run the slower-footed players (domestic, taxpayer-owned banks and Nama) by selling relatively quickly, leaving the Irish taxpayer to fund any eventual shortfall. (I am including the IBRC, the vestiges of Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide, in my definition of domestic banks.) So loan forbearance and front-running in Irish property markets could interact to the detriment of taxpayers.   


Continue reading “Forbearance and Frontrunning in Irish Property Markets”

Latest Issue of the Economic and Social Review

Vol 42 Issue 2 (Summer 2011) of the Economic and Social Review is available online here

The Economic and Social Review invites high-quality submissions in economics, sociology and cognate disciplines on topics of relevance to Ireland. Contributions based on original empirical research and employing a comparative international approach are particularly encouraged.

Published papers are listed in the Social Sciences Citation Index.

Not a new bailout?

Reuters report Minister Noonan as saying:

“There is a commitment that if countries continue to fulfill the conditions of their program the European authorities will continue to supply them with money even when the program is concluded,” Noonan told Irish state broadcaster RTE.

“The commitment is now written in that if we are not back in the markets the European authorities will give us money until we get back in the markets.”

In the event that the State cannot fund itself on the open markets, this statement would seem to imply the Minister readily expects more cash than previously agreed with the EU, IMF, UK, and Sweden. But apparently that’s not a new bailout.

Presumably this statement was intended to reduce uncertainty about Ireland’s post-2013 funding position. But these statements inject more uncertainty.

The Minister expects there will be more cash if we are good boys and girls. Ok, I can accept that. But there are important follow on questions: That’s more cash, for the same terms? On different terms? Cash from whom, using what mechanism (EFSF/EFSM/IMF/Something else)?. When, if not in 2013, will Ireland return to the markets? Is there a Greece-style road map somewhere for Ireland?

Can we see it?

These are just some of the questions raised, on the night at Macgill Summer School we hear the Taoiseach proclaiming Ireland’s intention to repay all of its creditors. which, if we’re Greece 2.0, wouldn’t be correct at all.

EU Interest Rate Calculations

Well thanks Silvio! If it weren’t for the comical actions of Signor Berlusconi, I doubt if we would have obtained yesterday’s long-hoped-for interest rate cut on our EU loans. Certainly, the cut isn’t in any way related to the negotiating skills of the government – who were last seen essentially waving a white flag on this issue.

On the substance of the deal, like Namawinelake, I’m frustrated at the lack of useful detail about the new interest rate and potential changes in loan maturities.

An annual saving of €800 million is being widely cited but I have my doubts if the correct amount has actually been calculated. My guess is that the final savings could be a bit larger, perhaps as much as €1.2 billion annually.

The first open question relates to which funds the cut is being applied to and the second relates to the size of the cut in the interest rate itself. The statement merely says

The EFSF lending rates and maturities we agreed upon for Greece will be applied also for Portugal and Ireland.

However, Ireland is only borrowing €17.7 billion from EFSF and no reasonable multiple of this number delivers annual savings of about €800 million. It seems most likely that the reasonable assumption is being made that the interest rate will also be cut on Ireland’s €22.5 billion of loans from the EFSM, though as this is an EU vehicle, last night’s meeting could not announce such a cut.

If we applied a cut of “about two percent” to the “about €40 billion” of EFSF and EFSM loans, then my fuzzy math calculations come up with “about €800 million”. So that’s the likely source of the figure.

However, it seems likely to me that the terms of Ireland’s €4.8 billion in promised bilateral loans from the UK, Denmark and Sweden will be renegotiated, so a more accurate fuzzy math would apply “about two percent” to exactly €45 billion to arrive at “about €900 million”.

Then there’s the question of the size of the interest rate cut. The Irish media have clung firmly to the notion that the average interest rate on our loans was about 5.8 percent, despite plenty of evidence that the cost of the EU component was going to be higher than had been projected last November.

As I reported here a few weeks ago, by my calculations (spreadsheet here), the average interest rate on Ireland’s EU loan was going to be 6.21 percent. The Eurozone statement promises an interest rate

equivalent to those of the Balance of Payments facility (currently approx. 3.5%), close to, without going below, the EFSF funding cost.

That could imply a cut of 2.7 percent, which if applied to the full €45 billion would give “about €1.2 billion”. That may be right or wrong since we don’t have much information yet. But I suspect that once things are worked out, the savings will be greater than the €800 million being quoted.

Update: Sean O’Rourke just put my calculations to Michael Noon on the RTE News at One. The Minister conceded that it was likely that the interest rate cuts would be extended to the bilateral loans and that this would get the savings up to €900 million.

When a higher figure of €1.2 billion was put to him, the Minister noted that this might have included the likely reduction in future IMF rates (something I’ve written about before but wasn’t including here.)  The difference here comes from my comparison of the “about 3.5 percent” with my calculated current average EU rate of 6.2%.

With the average margin over cost of funds currently running at about 300 basis points, it still seems to me that a reduction of this margin to get the interest rate “close to” the funding cost sounds like a reduction closer to three percent than two percent. But I could be wrong.

Plan B begins to emerge

Colm McCarthy writing on these, em, pages, a few days ago explained that Europe’s Plan A–no banks will go under, no states will default on their debts, fiscal consolidation plus recapitalisation will see us through–is being quietly dropped in favour of Plan B. Today at the EU Debt Summit we got a glimpse of what Plan B will look like. (updated to official version).

Briefly, Greece is being allowed to selectively default, but this won’t harm Greek banks (nor their French owners) because the greek bonds will be guaranteed by an enhanced European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) that can intervene in secondary markets amongst other new powers. Other debt-laden member states, including Ireland, will have access to cheaper funds from the uber-EFSF at longer maturities.

The markets liked it too, with bank shares enjoying a nice bounce. There’s some evidence the bounce we saw on the markets was just short equity positions being cleared out, so I wouldn’t take that too seriously as an indicator of how well this new plan will go down. I don’t think many people were surprised at Greece’s default. As macroeconomic events go, the default was pretty well expected, hence the lack of jitters when it was announced.

It is to be welcomed that the Greek default is somewhat orderly and buttressed by other member states’ guarantees to reduce (or avoid completely) balance sheet contagion. What’s not so welcome are some of the phrases used in the draft document. They are vague enough to allow lots of leeway should policy makers require it, but precise enough to guarantee action of some shape or form. All this does is move debate away from ‘what will they do’ to ‘how are they going to do it’, which is unhelpful given the seriousness of the situation. This is, after all, the tenth time EU leaders have met to sort the problems in Europe out ‘once and for all’.

Paragraph 7 of the draft contains the following rather ominous sentence:

To improve the effectiveness of the EFSF and address contagion, we agree to increase the flexibility of the EFSF, allowing it to:

– intervene on the basis of a precautionary programme, with adequate conditionality

That is really worrying language. Does it mean, for example, that the EFSF can require states to implement austerity measures without negotiation with the sovereign? The language is vague enough to be quite scary.

The composition of the new beefed up EFSF isn’t reported. The only place Italy is mentioned in the draft is to get a pat on the back for its recent fiscal consolidation. Is Italy, in its current fragile state, expected to keep its share of the EFSF up? Look at the table on page 1 of this document from the EFSF showing the contributions of member states. Italy is expected to pony up up to 78 billion euros if required. More information on just where this money is coming from would be most welcome.

Another slight worry is that Ireland has agreed to talk about the common consolidated corporate tax base (ccctb), meaning that perhaps there has been a movement in the government’s position on this issue, though agreeing to talk does not mean that Ireland’s corporation tax rate (a different beast) is under threat just yet.

All in all, a lot to discuss in today’s announcements, but I don’t personally feel the EU has solved its problems to the satisfaction of all, though commenters may of course disagree.

Fun with Instant Zero Deficits!

I know some of our blog commenters are big fans of the idea of ending the EU-IMF deal and immediately running a zero deficit. I spoke with Kathy Sheridan from the Irish Times a while back about how this would be chaotic.

It’s interesting then to see US politicians apparently eager to try out this experiment on their own economy, pretty much for the hell of it. Here‘s an interesting analysis of the decisions that could be facing the US Treasury on August 2. A corresponding analysis for Ireland would be really interesting.

Bank Taxes and Buybacks

European politicians are engaged in frantic negotiations to deal with both the Greek debt problem and the wider question of the EU’s approach to the problems of peripheral countries.

On the approach to the Greece, I’m not encouraged by the reporting from the financial press which has focused on a bank tax and debt buybacks.

First, we’re being told that the idea of a tax on European banks to raise about €30 billion is emerging as a “popular consensus” approach to getting private creditors to “help pay for the estimated €115bn bail-out”.  As reported, it’s pretty unclear what happens with the €30 billion. Is it loaned to Greece and then later paid back to the banks that paid the tax? If so, it’s not really a tax in the usual sense of the word.  Anyone who understands this is welcome to explain it in comments.

However it’s structured, this seems to be the wrong approach to the wrong problem.  The goal seems to be to keep Greece’s debt burden exactly where it is (thus not solving the key problem) but to reduce the headline number for the size of a second EU-IMF loan (which solves a political problem in some countries).  In relation to private sector “burden sharing”, the approach still seems to view a Greek default as unthinkable (despite almost everyone viewing it as inevitable) while adopting a very strange approach to the demand for “private sector involvement”: Why should banks that don’t own any Greek debt have to pay a tax to contribute to a second bailout?

Maybe there’s a good idea hiding under this reporting: If so, I’m happy to have it explained to me.

Then there’s the increased focus on debt buybacks. The idea of debt buybacks is popular with both politicians and holders of debt. The politicians get to claim that there was no coercive default on the outstanding debt, thus saving face. The creditors usually manage to get the debt bought back at a nice premium to the current market value, so many of them make a tidy profit.

Academics that have looked at this issue generally don’t like debt buybacks. Here‘s a short article from VoxEU by some IMF staff. And here and here are two classic older articles written in the context of the 1980s Latin American debt crisis.

To briefly explain why buybacks are not as great an idea as they appear, consider the case of a country with debt and GDP of €100 billion, so the debt ratio is 100%. The market doubts this debt burden is sustainable and so prices the debt at 60 percent of its face value.

Now a programme is announced whereby funds are provided to allow the country to buy back all its debt. Those behind the plan imagine they can go into the market and start purchasing debt at 60c and get the debt ratio down to 60%.  However, because the debt ratio would be sustainable at 60% and at that point the government would be able to pay back all of its debts, there would be no need in such a situation for there to be a market discount on the price of the debt.

So, as the programme is announced and the government intervenes to start repurchasing its debt, the price of the debt would jump above 60c.  The final price of the debt would depend upon a number of factors including the terms on the money being provided externally to fund the programme. But the end result would probably be significantly less debt relief than obtained, for example, by a straight swap of new for old bonds involving a forty percent reduction in net present value.

In relation to the wider Euro area problems, I’m somewhat optimistic that Thursday will see a harmonisation and reduction of EU programme interest rates, extension of maturities, as well approval of EFSF loans for debt buybacks. Personally, I would like to see the remit of EFSF extended to allow it to lend directly to banks, replacing excessive ECB funding as well as Emergency Liquidity Assistance. Of course, I doubt if this is even being considered.

We’ll see what happens but my prediction is that political face saving will take precedence over economically efficient solutions.

Update: The FT has an answer to my question about the bank tax which mixes it together with the buyback plan: “According to officials, it would amount to a 0.0025 per cent levy on all assets held by eurozone banks and would raise €10bn per year for five years. The cash would go to the bail-out fund, which would then use the money to conduct a Greek bond buy-back.”

SSISI Barrington Medal Competition 2011/12

The Barrington Medal is awarded under the auspices of the Barrington Trust (founded in 1836 by the bequest of John Barrington). The award is intended to recognise promising younger researchers in social sciences in Ireland. This will be the 163rd anniversary of the lecture series and the recipient will be the one hundred and twenty-fifth Barrington Lecturer. The award is a silver medal and €1,000. 

 The lecture should be based on a paper of not more than 7,500 words addressing a topic of relevance to economic or social policy and of current interest in Ireland.  Candidates, who are within 10 years of completing a primary degree (or not more than 33 years of age), should submit a detailed abstract of approximately 1,000 words on the proposed lecture. They should also submit a short curriculum vitae and the name of a proposer who is familiar with their work. Entries should be sent by the 29 July 2011 to  
Dr Seán Lyons
Honorary Secretary, The Statistical & Social Inquiry Society of Ireland
c/o Economic and Social Research Institute
Whitaker Square, Sir John Rogerson’s Quay
Dublin 2.

Winners since the mid-1980s:

Clinch, J. Peter; Delaney, Liam; Harmon, Colm; Horgan, John J.;Johnston, Joseph J.;Kane, Aidan;Kearns, Alan; Keeney, Mary J.;Lane, Philip R.; Lawless, Martina; Lee, George; Lucey Brian M.; Lucey, Siobhan; Muckley, Cal; McCoy, Daniel A.; McNicholas, P. D.; Meenan, James; O’Rourke, Kevin; O’Toole, Ronnie; Oldham, C.H.; O’Neill, Donal; Thornhill, Donal J. and Whelan, Ciara.

NTMA on Ireland’s Funding

I had missed last week that NTMA had released an information note on Ireland’s financing situation. The note clarifies that funds from the EU and IMF that had been earmarked for bank recapitalisation can be used to fund fiscal deficits if, as the government is currently assuming, there are no further recapitalisation costs. Based on these assumptions, and projecting that fiscal deficits come in on target, they note that Ireland can get to the end of 2013 with minimal new funding.

Worth noting, however, is that there is an €11.8 billion bond maturing in January 2014. So, it would seem likely that if market funding is not accessed at some time before summer 2013 (or perhaps earlier), then the government will have to open negotiations on a new funding deal from the EU and IMF. I doubt if letting the clock tick all the way down to December 2013 would be a good strategy.

Economics and Psychology One-Day Conference

The fourth one day conference on Economics and Psychology will be held in the UCD Geary Institute on November 25th. The purpose of these sessions is to develop the link between Economics, Psychology and cognate disciplines in Ireland. A special theme of this year’s event will be the implications of behavioural economics for public policy. Abstracts (200-500 words) should be submitted before August 31st to Selected papers will feature in a special issue of the ESR policy section. Those wishing to have their paper considered should submit a draft before the November 25th session. Final drafts will be submitted for external peer review in January 2012.

Sunday Night Open Thread

This is a bit of an experiment following on from discussions with various commenters about open threads. There’s no set topic, discuss what you think is important for the Irish economy, I’ll close the thread tomorrow evening.

But, to make it more interesting, why don’t we agree to put in a link in each comment for further reading, with a blurb for why others should read this particular piece? I find link roundups very useful. It’s got to be one (roughly) Irish economics-themed link per post though, or the software will just think it’s spam and queue it for me to look at.

I’ll start.

NamaWineLake gets right into details about the repayment of our bondholders. The sheer detail involved in constructing this post merits a careful reading.

Comments open, no particular theme, share (and discuss) links you like. Let’s see how this goes.

Oh, and ZOMBIE MARX! Because, well, just because.

McCarthy: Brussels Plan A is Junk and that’s Great News for Us

Colm is at his best in this Sindo column. Best bits:

Plan A has failed to create circumstances in which the three ‘rescued’ countries can return to the markets, the over-riding objective of any programme of official support. Their traded debt has collapsed in price and all three are rated junk by at least one of the bond-rating agencies. They will not be graduating from the programmes of official support anytime soon and the verdict of the markets, the only verdict that matters, is that Plan A is also junk.

The essence of Europe’s Plan A, as first applied to Greece, is to pretend that the problem is less serious than is actually the case, avoid any element of debt relief and insist that budgetary stringency alone will do the trick.

Persistence with Plan A and blaming the markets and ratings agencies is not a viable option should Spain and Italy go under. The game is up. Plan A is being quietly abandoned. In this sense, this has been a good week for Ireland.

Minister Noonan should now be seeking European support for an end to payments to holders of bonds, guaranteed or unguaranteed, in the Irish banks. Every cent paid to them is at the expense of the holders of Ireland’s sovereign debt, who have been treated in quite cavalier fashion at the behest of the European Central Bank and apparently in response to threats from this unique organisation.

ECB officials come and go but sovereign states need sovereign credit forever. It would be an unmitigated disaster if Ireland’s act of faith in Europe were to result in the first-ever default on the sovereign obligations of the State.

IMF: “Nothing to see here, keep moving”

The European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund have passed Ireland with flying colours in their latest quarterly review. I’ll post audio of their press conference when it’s available (commenters please drop the link if you see it). The IMF press release is here.

The statement reads that bank reforms are on track, fiscal consolidation is on track, structural reforms are to come, and it’s all good. Lots of touchy-feely language. Those pesky bond markets, and the burning of senior bondholders, weren’t looked too kindly upon in questions, but overall the message seemed to be: Nothing to see here, nothing at all, no to burning senior bondholders, but guess what lads, the next review will be tougher. Stick with the programme.

On twitter, NamaWinelake reported a divergence between the EU and IMF, with Ajay Chopra of the IMF saying he expected to see a more robust approach to burden sharing, while the ECB representative said no, that wouldn’t be happening.  Although much can be made of comments like this, the review exercise seems to be, on balance, a qualified success. The government did meet its agreed targets. Whether the exercise enhances our credibility to the point that Ireland can wean itself off EU and IMF funds without a second loan package is another question entirely.

Central Bank Appoints Deputy Governor

The Central Bank of Ireland has appointed Stefan Gerlach to the position of Deputy Governor. The press release is here. Stefan will bring to the job an exceptional set of qualifications in the areas of macroeconomics and monetary policy. For those interested in finding out more about Stefan’s qualifications, his personal web page is here and his RePEc page is here.

Ireland’s credit rating downgraded to junk

Reuters reports that, because Ireland will likely need more financing, it is downgrading Ireland’s credit status to Ba1–of questionable credit quality. The expectation is that there are further falls to come as the prospect of burden sharing, refinancing, or some other combination of unpleasant events, looks increasingly likely. RTE report that the Department of Finance think this is a ‘disappointing development’. Me too.

I’m interested in commenters’ reactions to this news. Does it matter? Is it a sign of things to come?

Colm was right when he said we should fasten our seatbelts.

Eurogroup Statement

Here‘s a link to the Eurogroup statement from last night. This is promising

To this end, Ministers stand ready to adopt further measures that will improve the euro area’s systemic capacity to resist contagion risk, including enhancing the flexibility and the scope of the EFSF, lengthening the maturities of the loans and lowering the interest rates, including through a collateral arrangement where appropriate. Proposals to this effect will be presented to Ministers shortly.

But I’m not holding my breath waiting for an impressive intervention.

Fasten Your Seat-Belts….

In yesterday’s Sunday Independent, noting that Italian and Spanish ten-year yields had closed Friday at just under 5.30 and 5.70 respectively, I wrote:

‘The sole priority for the Eurozone should be to prevent the spread of bond market contagion to Spain and Italy, launching a new financial crisis on a scale beyond the rescue capability of the EU and IMF. If the crisis affecting Greece, Ireland and Portugal can be confined to those three countries there is a reasonable chance that Spain and Italy will retain access to the markets. If the contagion-spreaders in control of European policy continue the shambolic performance of recent months…… Spain and Italy will be swamped and the costs of resolving the Greek, Irish and Portugese problems will begin to look like a bargain. The Spanish Treasury managed to sell some three- and five-year bonds during the week….. But at some stage solvent-for-now issuers such as Spain must face the music in the ten-year market or their outstanding debt bunches shorter and shorter. If the Spanish ten-year interest rate edges much above 6%, the game will probably be up.’

Spanish ten-year yields breached 6% this morning, with Italian yields approaching 5.7%. EU Finance ministers are meeting this evening and might ponder this comment from Reuters:

‘Gary Jenkins, head of fixed income at Evolution Securities, said that while Italy is still a long way from the tipping point in terms of bond yields — markets have focused on yields of 7 percent as unsustainable — recent experience shows how quickly things can get out of control. Greece, Ireland and Portugal spent an average 43 consecutive days trading over 5.50 percent before they went north of 6.00 percent on a consistent basis, Jenkins said. That fell to an average of 24 consecutive days before rising above 6.50 percent, and just 15 days before the 7.00 percent level was breached on a consistent basis.’

In a low-growth economy like Italy and with an inflation target of 2% I am not confident that the ‘tipping-point’ is as high as 7%. But not to worry, the EU Commission is on the case, this from RTE:

The EU has called for a ban on rating agency decisions on countries under internationally-approved rescue packages. Speaking in Brussels, Internal Markets Commissioner Michel Barnier also said that governments should be fully informed before being downgraded by ratings agencies.

So the agencies would have to quit rating Greece, Ireland and Portugal, but could fire ahead rating Italy and Spain. Jose Manuel Barroso, the EU Commission president, also targeted the agencies last week, alleging market manipulation no less, and anti-European bias. The problem, in the estimation of these two EU luminaries, has been caused by the ratings agencies. With no Plan B apparently, the failure of Plan A needs to be assigned somewhere, and US ratings agencies will do fine. 

What precisely is the proposal of the EU Commission to deal with the contingency that Spain and Italy are forced to exit the bond market over the next few months? 

Meanwhile the Italian authorities have banned short selling of bank stocks, which older readers will recall was the source of the problems at Anglo.

Both Spain and Italy need to tap the markets on a continuing basis. The yields they now face at ten years are about the level that persuaded Ireland to take a holiday from the market last September. Their yield curves are also beginning to flatten ominously, with shorter rates rising more quickly than mediums.   

The bank stress tests Mark II are due on Friday. This could be a long week.

Allsop Auction Price Declines

Congratulations to regular commenter Dreaded Estate for producing this spreadsheet comparing sales prices at last week’s Allsop auction with the earliest available asking prices. Across the 46 properties for which previous asking prices could be found, the weighted average discount relative to the earliest asking price was 69 percent.

One can complain about this small sample (though Namawinelake points us to this map, showing a nice geographical mix) and also about extrapolating from the prices recorded at these kinds of “fire sale” auction. However, my inclination is that this is useful information about where the property market is likely to bottom out.  (Of course, even with seventy percent discounts, most people will still need to find a bank willing to give them a mortgage to buy a house.)