Greece Interrupted: Why The Bond Swap Is Not The End

by: Daryl Montgomery

Greece is set to swap its privately-held government bonds today for new ones that will represent a three-quarters loss of the original investment. The deal will allow the country to receive 130 billion euros in funds from its second bailout. Like the money from the first bailout, those funds will eventually run out, however.

The Greek bond swap is the biggest debt write-down in history. Over 85% of private investors (essentially banks, the deal does not include bonds held by the IMF or ECB) holding 117 billion euros ($234 billion) agreed to the "voluntary" exchange. The CEO of one major European bank described the transaction as about as voluntary as a confession during the Spanish Inquisition. The loss to bondholders is two-fold, consisting of a reduction in face value of 53.5% and then lower interest payments stretched over a longer period of time. All in all, private bondholders are taking an approximately 74% hit (assuming of course there isn't another write-down or Greece doesn't renounce its debt completely in the future).

Credit rating agency Moody's decided to call a spade a spade and declared Greece to be in default. Moody's line of reasoning in stating the obvious is that it considers a loss greater than 70% to be a "distressed exchange" (that's putting it mildly) and is therefore indicative of a default. The matter is not merely academic, since there is a significant amount of credit default swaps (bond insurance) outstanding on Greek debt. On Friday, a committee of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association - the regulatory authority on credit default swaps - ruled that the Greek debt restructuring was a credit event, and this will trigger payouts. How much CDS holders will receive remains to be seen.

Commentary from the EU political leadership on the swap deal was more mixed than after the first Greek bailout (statements back then were upbeat and generally confident that the problem had been solved and Greece was on its way to recovery). French president Sarkozy stated, "Today the problem is solved. A page in the financial crisis is turning." Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF said, "The real risk of a crisis, of an acute crisis, has been, for the moment, removed." German officials were far more cautious however. The French may be correct as long as their words are taken literally. The problem is indeed solved for today. That doesn't mean it is solved for tomorrow.

It is actually highly unlikely that the situation in Greece will be turning around any time soon because of the massive reduction in its debt load from the bond swap. If Greece had a functioning economy, there would be hope. However Greece's economy is heavily dependent on government spending and in exchange for bailout money the IMF and ECB have demanded severe cuts in Greece's budget deficits. Greece is now entering its fifth year of recession, after GDP contracted by 7.5% in 2011. Investment fell by 21% last year after sliding 15% in 2010. For Greece to continue to operate at all, continued bailout money will be needed. Greece has effectively gone from a welfare state to a state on welfare.

Not surprisingly, some analysts are sounding a note of caution. Predictions are that the financial bleeding in Greece will show up once again later this year. Problems may arise even sooner depending on when the next election takes place (now supposedly in May) and how much power the fringe parties gain. The bond market doesn't seem hopeful either. One year Greek government bond yields were last at 1143%. Such yields represent collapse, not solvency.

This posting is editorial opinion. There is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.