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Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Why I would buy a 2018 Greek Bond

The thing about financial journalists is that we've always been here before. No matter what it is, how mad it is or how bad it is, we've got an analogous situation secreted somewhere in our memory that presents itself just at the time the world seems to be going to pot.

This has been the predominant thought in my mind, like a tiny migraine fairy kicking my frontal lobe, every time I read about Greece.

We have been here before. We had the Russian default and the collapse of the Asian Tigers in the 1990s. We had the Latin American crisis. We have had a generation of Japanese children born without knowing what a rate rise is. We had the dot-com crash and the 'Sick Man of Europe' to contend with in the Noughties (that was Germany, by the way). Further back we had Black Monday in the 80s, and the India crisis in the 1970s. Throughout the decades and centuries, we have had Germany, Argentina, France, Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus and a host of others defaulting on debt repayments and/or in a sovereign default situation.

Today the yield on a two-year Greek government bond rose to more than 50 per cent, up from 10 per cent in January. Back then, the world was trying to digest the news that Greece was en-route to achieving a primary budget surplus - excluding debt repayments - of €3.3bn. This was roughly equal to 3 per cent of GDP, with a minor budget deficit of €338m; equating to 0.2 per cent of GDP.

However the failure to repay the first installment of the IMF's loan - which demanded 1.6bn Euros, then its people issuing a resolute NO to the tough measures imposed by other creditors - of whom Germany is the largest - has resulted in another 'crisis' situation.

Will there be a Grexit? What will happen if Greece goes back to the Drachma? I cannot get a consensus from any expert. It will be the first time any country has left the Euro, so nobody really knows what will happen. I've seen release after release from every sort of company from foreign exchange to travel insurance to investment companies. None of them seem to know what effect this will have, but all speak of immediate woes - caps on bank withdrawals, haircuts on pensions, further pin-pricks in the proverbial bond bubble, investors possibly ditching Greece for Japan (yes, James Mackintosh highlighted in the FT on 30th July that this could be a consideration. Curious, non?).

According to Bloomberg, although the ECB has raised the pressure on Greek banks to tighten access to emergency credit - in other words, preventing the Greeks from getting their money out before the government imposes blanket and deep haircuts to individual accounts - there has already been an injection of £69bn into the economy over the recent months.

The only way that the banks in Greece can tap into this emergency aid is through collateral - such as government bonds - but while one jokes about the "free money" on a 50%-plus government bond, there is far too little cushion to protect investors. The return, they believe, is not worth the risk. And 2017 is an awfully long way away.

Two years in fact.

Two years.

A lot can happen in that time. Two years ago today, I was single, swimming around the internet to my heart's content, wagging my own tail where I wanted. Today I am a respectable mermaid.

Two years ago, we were in a similar crisis situation. Cyprus had to be bailed out. Cyprus was on the brink of collapse. Pensioners could not get their money out. Cypriots faced haircuts on their bank accounts. It had to appeal to the ESM for funding, as well as the IMF, which has so far disbursed about €742.4m to shore up Cyprus.

The fear then was that this tiny nation might cause a ripple effect among Eurozone nations who were just about recovering. The UK prime minister made several strident comments about bailouts, and called on Europe to protect the several hundred British pensioners who bought a home in the sun.

According to Bloomberg, Cyprus just about dodged the bullet of a "disorderly sovereign default and unprecedented exit from the euro" by agreeing to shrink its banking system in exchange for €10bn of aid. The Cyprus Popular Bank, 84 per cent owned by the government, was forced to shut down. Elderly Cypriots told of poverty as their pensions were cut. Food flew off the shelves on the island. Young people told of rising unemployment.

Cyprus Popular Bank. Image: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Then in June 2013, Cyprus's debt ratings were downgraded to "default" after it announced it would delay paying back E1bn ($1.3bn; £860m) of bonds. There were serious worries going into the summer about whether it could pay.

Two years later, I am sitting here reading a report from the IMF about the organised repayment structure of Cyprus.

The acting chairman of the IMF, David Lipton, has this to say: "Cyprus's Fund-supported reform programme continues to produce positive results. Economic and fiscal outcomes have been better than expected, with growth turning positive in the first quarter of 2015 and public finances exceeding targets.

"Liquidity and solvency in the banking system have improved, allowing the elimination of external payment restrictions."

While there is still low employment and the need to ensure ongoing financial stability, two years have proved well for Cyprus. Yes, Cyprus still has problems, Yes it is far smaller than Greece, its bailout fund was far smaller and yes it still needs work on effecting its economic recovery.

Of course, the parallels with Greece do not extend to the depth of the distress in Greece, the protracted poverty of its citizens and its bizzare tax system that has allowed the wealthiest to shelter their tax dues, while the modest earners have been wound up in so much red tape they are scarred for life.

Greece has a stridently socialist government; Cyprus was more moderate. Greece has a history of independence; Cyprus has been a little bit of a geographical whore, welcoming anyone from Crusaders to the Turks to the Brits. Greece has never given us 10 points in Eurovision; Cyprus always gives us 10 points.

Ok that last bit doesn't bear any relation to economic stability.

But in the grand scheme of things, although the world has a great love for the Hellenic Republic, its people, its culture and its history - heck I even married one - the effect of a Greek departure will, like Cyprus, be no more than a short-term shock.

According to Bank of America/ML research, the entire MSCI market cap weighting of Greece in the global index is lower than that of one company - the US furniture store Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Greece does not export cars, petroleum, gold or financial services. It exports ideas, intelligence, talent - sadly so for Greece and wonderfully so for the rest of us - and many parts thrive mostly on tourism.

OPEC will not have to hike oil prices if Greece leaves the Eurozone. The oil we get from the Hellenic Republic cannot go in our cars. Well, it should not go in our cars. I've never tried to be honest. Perhaps it does work.

Markets will get all nervous in July and then, like they always do in August, settle down into a mumbling state while bankers, their wives and their mistresses jet off to some foreign clime, while the rest of us mug it down here with gelato and baring our pasty white feet in the park. In public.

By the time September comes around the fear that the markets had already anticipated will have become a reality. This is good news. Why? Because fear is unknown. Markets do not like the unknown. At least when you know something you can price it in properly. So by then any effect of another, restructured, more fairly implemented debt package for a Eurozone Greece, or a loan restructuring plan underpinned by the EEF for a Euro-free Greece, will have already been priced in. Greece, says Morningstar, is a Black Sheep, not a Black Swan. It will not cause contagion.

Economists will be on a clearer footing to make even more wild predictions or sage warnings. Analysts will be able to see the wood for the terrible puns on 'Drama/Drachma' and start looking at the longer-term. Fund managers will pick through the debris to find the golden nugget companies that are going to be long-term winners. Investor sentiment will improve. Politicians will stop calling each other terrorists. The Germans will shut up (well maybe that won't happen) and perhaps stop being Europe's Money Police.

In two years' time, the current speculation and hyperbole over Greece will have diminished into 'how we are dealing with this situation'. Pensioners will get their money. People will start seeing more investment into improving the business workforce and reduce unemployment. There will be more food on people's plates.

It will be a long while off before Greece and her wonderful people recover from this traumatic time. I think it will take longer than two years before the IMF produces a paper such as the one it has written on Cyprus. In my estimation we can expect to see this sort of positive structural and financial reforms by the end of 2018.

Do not underestimate the emotional and physical effect this large-scale Monopoly played by Germany and its Eurozone allies have had on Greece. Old people have been pushed to suicide, families left wrenched apart by stress. Young graduates cannot afford to eat every day. Parents go to the food bank to feed their children. Little businesses have closed; shops have shut their doors for the last time. The elderly are left sitting, waiting for a pitiful amount of money to see them through the month. The hopes of Generation Y have been burned at the stake of Eurozone aggression.

This Instagram picture sums it all up, taken by someone in a bank in Athens over the past week.

But from the embers of this turbulence, a new order will rise. Greece has been here before. It will survive. Europe has been here before. It will be restored. The world has been here before. And each time it comes back a little wiser, a little stronger.

Will I buy a 2017 Greek bond? No. I couldn't anyway - I'm not an institution with the wealth needed to pick up some sovereign debt. But I would buy a 2018 Greek Bond. If my NS&I comes in next month, that is exactly what I will do. Because I will be turning to everyone and saying 'I told you so'.


Gorilla Bananas said...

If Greece leaves the Euro, what would stop it from defaulting on its Euro-dominated debt? No one should expect any less if they are forced out of the single currency against their will.

Mermaid of Moorgate said...

I am sure the Germans would not let that happen!

Anonymous said...

Good luck with that bond. I reckon 50/50 is about right.

Mermaid of Moorgate said...

Are you advocating a long/short strategy

Gorilla Bananas said...

The Germans, Mermaid? I think we should let Sheriff Buford T Justice have the last word.

hellenic beast said...

going there on holiday