How Do You Cover Up Your Failure: the Greek Case

I believe that Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times has done investors a big favor in writing her piece for the Sunday morning paper of November 20. This article reveals the extent that officials will go to try and avoid the consequences of when they royally “screw up”! (link)

The situation: “the debt mess in Europe.”

The event: “bankers are pressing Greece’s bond holders to swallow big losses.”

The intended consequence: “Leading the charge is BNP Paribas, the big French bank, which has been hired by the Greed government to help persuade investors to accept a deal that would cut the value of their investments in half.”

The cover-up: “On paper, this restructuring would be voluntary!”

The reason for this behavior: the Credit Default Swaps that are supposed to cover the losses on a write down like this. “If Greece stops paying after the restructuring (the swaps that investors bought as insurance on the Greek debt) are supposed to cover their losses, much the way homeowners’ insurance would cover a fire.”

The effort: if the restructuring is declared voluntary then the “credit insurance may not pay off down the road, because after the restructuring is completed, the terms of the old debt might be changed.”

Who stands to gain: “BNP which stands to profit from the restructuring.” BNP will “generate fees from the exchange” or is concerned about “its own exposure to Greece. A question being discussed is whether or not “BNP Paribas has written a lot of insurance on Greek debt. If so, getting people to unwind such swaps now would be less costly for BNP than having the insurance pay off.”

Most suspicious, an official of BNP Paribas, Belle Yang, is also on the “powerful” International Swaps and Derivatives Association (I.S.D.A.) “determinations committee” that will decide what constitutes a “credit event” both in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.

When you don’t do your job, things happen. And, when things happen and you deny that things are happening, things get worse. And, when things get worse you sometimes do very stupid things in order to keep avoiding what you really have to do.

Just ask Penn State University officials about this!

Politicians in Europe created too much debt in trying to remain in office by paying off their constituents in order to get re-elected. When financial markets started to complain about the excesses of debt created, European officials claimed that the problems were caused by speculators and other “greedy bastards” that were trying to disrupt things for their own gain. When things got worse, officials claimed that there was a liquidity crisis at hand, not a solvency crisis. And, because it was a liquidity crisis, bailouts could resolve the issue by giving governments enough time to get their budgets in order.

This did not work and when these officials finally came to accept the fact that they might have to deal with the insolvency of their countries, they began working on a “new gimmick” that a default really was not a default…if it were voluntary.

And, if the default was just voluntary then contracts written to insure against a default could not really be collected upon!

That is, the legal contracts that were written to insure parties against default are really worthless!

“If investors think debt terms can be changed by fiat, they will flee the market. Ditto, if they find that their insurance can be made worthless.”

“The discussions with BNP Paribas confirm the view of some investors that credit default swaps are not insurance at all, but rather instruments that big banks use to benefit themselves.”

Hello, Occupy Wall Street!!!

My prediction: “the debt mess in Europe” is not going to be cleared up until people stop lying to themselves and really start to address the issues that are outstanding. The problem with this, as I have written about many times before, is that I see no leaders in Europe that are willing to stand up and really discuss the issues that are outstanding. (link)

The sovereign debt problems that Europe faces are problems of solvency. How many times does someone have to say this! Until the officials of Europe address this problem “head on” and really try to “get their hands around it” they will continue to come up with “screwball” ideas like the one that Morgenson writes about in the Sunday NYTimes.

Resolving solvency problems are not easy and I’m sure this is why many European officials “put off” going for a real solution. Solving solvency problems are going to cause a lot of hurt and pain…and will take a lot of time to correct.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of hubris connected with the conceit of many European governments, a conceit that these governments could engineer high rates of employment and a social infrastructure that took care of all ills within a world in which there would be no international repercussions for such excessive and undisciplined behavior.

Unfortunately, there are no “good” solutions to living beyond ones means for an extended period of time. If you “screw up” you finally end up paying for it. And, solving the problem can hurt many, many people.

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About John Mason 79 Articles

Professional history: Banking--President and CEO of two publically traded financial institutions; Executive Vice President and CFO of another. Academic--Professor at Penn State University and at the Finance Department, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Government--Special Assistant to Secretary George Romney at Department of Housing and Urban Development; Senior Economist in Federal Reserve System. Entrepreneurial--work in venture capital and other private equity; work with young entrepreneurs in urban environment.

Visit: Mase: Economics and Finance

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