Watch Those Bonds
Europe was the main focus of investor attention this week. For once the latest proposals from the continent’s leaders received a warm reception from markets. The catastrophic failure of the eurozone is not being taken quite so much for granted.
Amid the avalanche of comment on the expansion of the EFSF, the 50% haircut on Greek debt, the financial strength of the zone’s banks and so on, it has been easy to lose sight of what went wrong for Greece, and what might still go wrong for Italy and the others. To assess the risk of full scale catastrophe it is necessary to look in one place only: the bond market.
It was not the banks alone, or the recession alone, or the burden of government debt alone that did for the Greeks. It was the cost of debt. This cannot be emphasised enough. The idea in some quarters that a debt-to-GDP ratio of 100%+ is automatically unsustainable is simply wrong – and not just wrong for giants like Japan, or the US, but for lowly-rated borrowers like Lebanon. Or like Greece, which enjoyed an interest rate on its ten year bonds only 0.27% above that of Germany as recently as 2007. Today that would mean paying 2.5%; at that rate, debt to GDP of 300% would be perfectly affordable.
It was the bond market that broke Greece. The last emergency summit in Europe, remember, was convened back in July to agree a revised bailout for Greece: the continued effective closure of debt markets to the country made the refinancing pathway envisaged under the terms of the original 2010 deal impossible.
At the same time, concerns about contagion through the banking system do not convince. Those expecting lightning to strike in the same place twice need to remind themselves of the scale of banking losses suffered on the back of the subprime crisis: Bloomberg gives a figure of over $2.1trn in writedowns worldwide, with over $1.6trn of capital needing to be raised. For Europe alone the losses were over $730bn. And that crisis took the world largely by surprise. The restructuring of Greek debt, as well as being a much smaller event, is hardly coming out of left field. It is frankly obtuse to expect a comparable degree of systemic dislocation to ensue.
But the bond market is a different matter.
Italy tapped the market for just under €8bn of 3-, 8- and 10-year money this morning, paying rates in the 5-6% range for the privilege. Demand for the new bonds was weak, and this has received a lot of attention, but a rate of 6% is far from disastrous. Italy has about €300bn of debt to refinance next year; at 6% this would cost €18bn in interest per year. If rates were to rise to 10%, however, the cost of servicing the debt would increase by €12bn, wiping out the whole benefit of the austerity budget agreed last month.
Still, the very fact that today’s auctions took place shows that the bond market is still open to Italy. The bear case that the expansion of the EFSF to a hypothetical €1trn is “too little, too late” rests its logic on the size of Spain and Italy’s financing requirements (between them they are likely to need to raise that amount between now and end-2013 or so). But so long as they are able to raise debt without any assistance from the EFSF this is not entirely relevant.
It was hugely significant during the recent crash that Italy’s bond yields did not rise to dangerous levels. If they continue to hold their ground – or better yet, if confidence improves and they fall – catastrophic contagion in the eurozone is unlikely to occur. Talk about the banks, and haircuts, and credit derivatives is all very interesting. But if you really want to know how afraid to feel, just keep an eye on those bonds.