The euro zone crisis: Watch the Greeks, not the agencies





Jan 16th 2012, 13:55 by Buttonwood

WHILE the big headlines over the weekend were about S&P’s downgrades of European countries, the more worrying news came from Greece, where talks on a debt deal broke up. While I am not as negative as some on the agencies (their record on rating sovereign debt is pretty good), the market had already anticipated a downgrade of France, which has been paying a higher rate on its debt than Germany.

Greece’s debt is a complex issue. Clearly, it must default to get its debt-to-GDP ratio down. But it also has a competitiveness problem that requires either a devaluation (not possible within the euro) or a fall in its costs (lower wages and thus a lower standard of living). Some of the pain of the latter option can be cushioned by subsidies from its fellow EU nations but they demand reforms in return. Many of those reforms are opposed by Greeks; it remains to be seen whether the technocratic government can push them though.

Of course, Greece has already had loans from the rest of the EU and this complicates matters further. The authorities are unwilling to see take any write-downs on their money. That puts all the burden on the private sector. Indeed, the more money lent by official bodies, the greater the write-down the private sector is forced to absorb if the Greek debt-to-GDP ratio is to fall significantly.

Throw in another twist. The authorities are obsessed (rather perversely in my view) with making the agreement voluntary so that the Greek deal is not classed as a default in terms of credit default swap market. That gives the creditors a bit more bargaining power. The banks appear likely to go along with whatever they’re offered but the hedge funds are putting up more of a stink.

Talks between Greece and its private sector creditors are due to resume on Wednesday, January 18. Whereas a tentative deal was reached in October to write the debt down by 50%, a lot depends on the interest rate on the new debt. The lower the rate, the better for Greece but the bigger the hit (in present value terms) to the creditors. And then there are the knock-on effects. The EU has said that the Greek deal won’t set a precedent for other nations. But, pull the other one. The EU has said a lot of stuff during this crisis and has backtracked many times. The bigger the write-off for Greece and the more aid (in terms of cheap finance), the more other nations will be encouraged to default and the greater the worries of creditors of other nations. That’s why the Greek deal (or lack of it) is so crucial.

UPDATE: On the issue of the agencies being behind the curve, here is the result of an analysis by Gabriel Sterne at Exotix

We too have been repeatedly critical of troubled European sovereign ratings as the crisis has grown; we think they have been much too lenient! Our views are based on a simple but systematic assessment of the statistical relationship between sovereign ratings and spreads in EM and EA sovereigns. The analysis suggests the agencies rated troubled EA sovereigns 5-6 notches more favourably than do markets [as of 20 December].  Hence we continue to think that EA ratings are way behind the curve in terms of speed and size of downgrades.