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.”