Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why was the Greek default "voluntary"?

Marginal revolution links to this piece in the UK Daily Telegraph:
But perhaps the biggest sin of the lot was effectively to render all credit default swaps (a form of insurance against default) on sovereign debt essentially worthless, or void, by making the Greek default "voluntary".
This has made it impossible to hedge against eurozone sovereign debt purchases, and thereby destroyed the market. Worse, it's made investors believe that the euro cannot be trusted, that it'll repeatedly find ways of reneging on contract. That's the point of no return. This is no longer a serious currency.
Tyler Cowen refuses to take a stand on the question of whether the stated claim (making the default "voluntary" was a big blow to the credibility of the Euro) is true. And I think it's not clear, although the argument is not unpersuasive.

But it does raise a something that I now wish I'd written about earlier when I thought of it at the time, namely this: I don't understand why on earth they insisted on making the default "voluntary". The quotation marks are deliberate, as it was about as "voluntary" as when Vito Corelone makes you an offer you can't refuse, complete with a decapitated horse head left on your pillow. But technically, the private debt holders just happened to agree to forgive half the Greek debt they held. You know, like debt holders always do! Call up your student loan company, they'll tell you all about it!

When investors in Greek debt have to take a haircut, somebody is losing money. In a simple world without credit default swaps, the holders of the debt lose money - easy enough, that's the risk they took when they bought it. In this case, it doesn't really matter if the default is voluntary or not, they lose the same amount of money.

But when you add in credit default swaps, now it does start to matter. For the non-finance audience, think of this as like an insurance policy for the case that the debt defaults. You make periodic payments in advance, and then get a payoff if there's a 'credit event' (default, delay in payment, reduction in principal or interest, and a bunch of other contractually specified events). Some people buy the CDS contract and the bonds, some people buy the bond but not the CDS, some people sell (i.e. write) the CDS.

In a typical default, the ordering goes like this: the best off are those who had the bond and the CDS - this is like when your house burns down, but you have an insurance policy. The next worst off are the guys who have the bond but not the CDS. They're like the people whose house burnt down without insurance, but they still at least have the land (i.e., whatever the recoverable value of the bond is). The worst off are the CDS writers (i.e. the insurance comapny) - they pay out on the policy, and get nothing.

In well-functioning financial markets, we tend to think that this kind of risk-sharing is welfare improving. The insurance company is better placed to bear the risk of my house burning down than I am, and I pay them a premium for this service. Everyone benefits in the long run, even if there's winners and losers in any given event.

So here, it's as if the EU governments decided to not only burn down the house, but also void all the fire insurance policies, since "voluntary" defaults don't trigger the CDS contract payments. The best off are the CDS writers (the insurance companies), who pay nothing. The second worst off are the guys with bonds but no CDS (the homeowner without insurance), who takes the haircut but that's all. And now the single worst off guy is the one who bought the bond and the CDS - he loses  out on the value of the bond, AND he's been paying premiums for all these years on the CDS! Essentially you're totally screwing over the guy who bought the Greek Bonds but was a bit nervous about the risk and tried to insure himself. Congratulations pal, you get to eat a sh*t sandwich!

Now, bear in mind this is the exact opposite  of what governments normally do in catastrophes. If anything, they like to pressure insurance companies to pay out in situations they might not have. Both September 11th and the Paris Car Burnings could arguably be considered acts of war or civil emergencies (respectively), neither of which tend to be covered in insurance contracts. But the insurance companies paid out anyway, perhaps because of actual (or implied) pressure from the respective governments. Obviously there are clear political reasons in those cases - lots of voters on one side, a couple of nasty insurance companies on the other - but still, it's the general rule for how things go.

So why the hell would they deliberately do the opposite in this case? Truthfully, I don't really know. The "voluntary" defaults were taken by private investors and banks, and the people who wrote CDS contracts were largely other banks. So it's not clear why the EU government should prefer one group over the other. Maybe the government had private information that the financial stability was more threatened by CDS writers going under than bondholders, but it's not clear why this should be the case - a lot of French and German banks stood to lose money by this deal, as they held the bonds and CDS contracts that got screwed.

So what's left? A symbolic 'we never defaulted!' victory? Seems like a pretty damn Pyrrhic victory to me, as investors are not going to be fooled at all next time they're thinking about investing in PIIGS government debt. And the article author is right - they're also going to rightly question whether they can even get proper CDS insurance on this debt, or whether the EU will choose to screw them over again. This might not cause the collapse of the Euro, but it sure doesn't seem to be adding to the desirability of EU sovereign debt.

I'm hoping there's a good reason they did this that I don't know about. But from reading around, I haven't uncovered what it is. I can think of a bunch of bad reasons (CDS writers were more politically connected, the EU had a hard-on about the idea of not actually defaulting). But if there's some higher purpose to the whole thing, you can put me in the same camp as Jeremy Warner at the Telegraph in not understanding what it is.

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