Sovereign debt crisis: What traders are talking about

Here’s what I am hearing. At the end, I will tell you how far-fetched I think these things are.

  1. Greece will default. Greek default is now priced as a near certainty (now 99%, judging from 10-year bonds and credit default swaps).
  2. Contagion is the concern. Greece is relatively small, however – less than 3% of euro zone GDP. So Greece matters because of the direct exposure of a few banks, but mostly because of potential knock-on effects, especially in Spain and Italy which are too big to fail. But France is now an issue as well.
  3. Greek default means euro zone break up. What happens when Greece defaults then? Rumour: when the Greek default is announced, simultaneously Greece will announce it is leaving the Euro and the Drachma will start trading on FX markets immediately.
  4. The Drachma means wealth loss for Greeks. As in Argentina, traders believe cutting the implicit ‘Drachma peg ‘ with the euro means huge devaluation. “Traders believe the Drachma will have to be competitively devalued immediately by forty to fifty percent, meaning that Greek middle classes will see their savings held in domestic banks depreciate by the same amount in value within twenty four hours. This could then precipitate a “run” on the banks causing the Greek economy to collapse even further.”
  5. A partial run is already happening. We have already seen this in Ireland (although the situation there has stabilised). Felix Zulauf pointed to Italian bank deposit loss in May. The Siemens move was an indication that not just Greek banks but French banks with Greek exposure are being targeted as well.
  6. Capital flows from Europe are increasing US money supply. “in relation to the recent surge in the US money supply,… the argument would seem to be that a silent run on European banks is in the works as money is moved into perceived safe USD liquid assets.”
  7. The ECB will not provide liquidity to Italy and Spain. “It’s a question of what incentives we create with our decisions. Interest rates in the capital market have a disciplinary effect. And if monetary policy intervenes in the markets, the pressure on the affected governments to introduce the necessary reforms is reduced.”

One source: Traders Prepare For “Run” on European Banks.

Another source: | Greeks to vote on future in eurozone?

Here’s what I think. Many European policy makers want more than anything to preserve European cohesion. In Germany, policy makers feel pressure as the largest country to promote this cohesion. German history tells them that Germany would bear the lion’s share of the blame for a collapse of the euro zone. So despite anti European noises from the Germans, there is a lot of support for Europe still left. I recommend the following two articles on this (I know these are both Spiegel articles – and Spiegel has a ‘sensationalistic flair that makes some Germans wary of it as a source; but the information here is good):

My sense is that the Germans will not let Italy or Spain go down. They do want their quid pro quo in terms of ‘structural reforms’ for offering aid, however. Moreover, the ECB will not buy Italian and Spanish debt without this quid pro quo. We first heard this via Morgan Stanley’s Elga Bartsch and now Bundesbank head Weidmann is saying exactly the same thing (see the link in bullet #7 above). And if you read the Interview with Peer Steinbrück above, you will see that even the SPD which is out of power is saying the same thing. So the consensus is aid in exchange for structural reform.

The question is default. Germany is preparing for Greek bankruptcy, yes. This is just contingency planning because the official German position on Greece is to avoid talk of default and to push forward with structural reforms until it is clear that Greece cannot make the grade. Allowing Greece to default lessens pressure on it for reforms and that is what the Germans want. While German Chancellor Merkel’s authority is being questioned, she is still following this line and I believe the Germans will do for some time to come.

Even if Greece did default (which I believe they will eventually), Eurozone default is not synonymous with breakup. So I think the concept that Greece will default and then go immediately to the Drachma is far-fetched. How does that happen? You would have a run on Greek banks. This would spread to Italy and Spain at a minimum. The Greek economy would collapse. In short, this would be an unmitigated disaster.

Merkel recently said:

"The top priority is to avoid an uncontrolled insolvency, because that would not just affect Greece, and the danger that it hits everyone – or at least several countries – is very big.

"I have made my position very clear that everything must be done to keep the eurozone together politically. Because we would soon have a domino effect"

On the money supply issue, a friend reminded me that “capital flows into a country with a flexible exchange rate do not change the stock of money. They change the exchange rate. In a fixed exchange rate nation, money stock would be effected, but that is not what the US has, at least with respect to the eurozone.” In theory the exchange rate effect is true, but only over the medium-term. The ECB/Fed swap lines are in place, so perhaps you don’t see as much pressure on the Euro as you might expect but indeed the euro has sold off somewhat. If the Europeans are getting into the USD, then you would expect to see money supply changing (Euroland shrinking, US rising) and eventually the exchange rate pressure should come too. That’s why the euro should be under pressure.

I think I will leave it there. I will say that all of this strikes me as panic – a liquidity crisis with huge potential for deadweight economic loss. Agricole, SocGen and BNP Paribas have shown much more transparency about their exposure to Greece. That’s a good thing. In retrospect, yesterday’s post on the European Bank Run strikes me as unduly alarmist because I should have stressed that this could well be just a liquidity crisis and not a solvency crisis for the French banks. Before we start talking about recapitalisations and the like, we must recognise this.

Above all, however, we need to take pressure off the ECB to do the heavy lifting. Europe suffers a lack of democracy. We want the ECB to provide lender of last resort liquidity but first we want democratically-elected national governments to make the hard choices instead of the ECB. The whole EU apparatus is seen by many Europeans as deeply undemocratic and so when they see these schemes, they recoil in revulsion. It is this revulsion which is driving the politics and makes the situation unpredictable. Minimising it by taking decisive action on a credible solution to Europe’s debt crisis is the only way out of this successfully.

  1. Diego Méndez says

    “but first we want democratically-elected national governments to make the hard choices instead of the ECB”

    The problem is, of course, no matter how democratically-elected national governments may be, their decisions won’t be considered democratic nor legitimate if they are not perceived to benefit the ordinary citizen.

    Austerity measures and structural reforms increase unemployment (at least in the short and medium term), inequality, poverty and social unrest. They will never be felt to be democratic. Moreover, people in the EU periphery are perfectly conscious that non-democratic representatives of financial and foreign interests are deciding the laws and the budgetary measures their Parliaments pass in a very undemocratic way.

    For many (For most?) in the EU periphery, democracy has been lost and we are living now in a “dictatorship of the markets”. Incidentally, may I say this is not far from the truth?

    1. Coldcall says


      Democracy was lost across eurozone nations a long time ago through successive governments of right and left who never gave their populations a choice over the euro. Spain should have listened to the guy on tv in the 80s with the joke about how nice it was the EU kindly asking if Spain wanted to join europe. Think of it? Spain has been central to europe for more or less 2000 years. The EU is built on the fear of being left behind, it is evil.

      1. Diego Méndez says

        Well, I think the EU is necessary, I just don’t want *this* kind of EU. Basically, the EU should have a democratic government which it hasn’t.

        I personally think if the EU disappeared overnight, we would start wars on each other in a matter of months. I am not sure Southern Europe would be democratic today if we hadn’t joined the EU, and I am not sure we would be democratic for long if the EU disappeared.

        But yes, you are right, the euro was launched with no democratic legitimacy. Had it been democratically discussed, we would have a very different euro today, probably a working one.

  2. SH says

    Hi Ed:

    Sorry to pollute, but I think this article needs some explanation, even if from the MMT folks.

    The issue at hand relates to this quote

    “”On the money supply issue, a friend reminded me that “capital flows into a country with a flexible exchange rate do not change the stock of money.””

    This is how I learned it. If a European owns Euros and wants to buy dollars, they have to buy dollars in an American bank as no dollars are held outside of American banks so they sell Euros and buy dollars with Chase or another bank that holds reserves. Even with the recent swap, the ECB loans a claim to dollars at the Fed and the ultimate buyer of dollars still only has a claim on reserves at the Fed. Unless it is physical cash, it does not leave the boundary. That’s where I need your MMT friends to either confirm or disclaim. Regardless, demand for dollars goes up and demand for Euros goes down and the “flexible” exchange rate flexes.

    Alternatively, in a fixed rate regime, the foreign nation has a mandate to hold the exchange rate steady. Private parties need dollars so in order to hold the exchange rate pegged, they give dollars on reserve, take the local, and the local party has a credit on the Feds account or a bank credit to a domestic bank. The fixed rate regime cannot print dollars.

    As I was taught, in neither case, the supply of dollars does not change. The supply might change from M3 to M2 or M1, but unless the Feds or a bank supplies credit, there is no change in money supply. The only change is the demand for existing dollars which to me may be a big reason the Fed is swapping with the ECB.

    Please blow my argument up. I need to find the holes.

    Thanks again, Scott

    1. Edward Harrison says

      Good question. The floating explanation seems right, the fixed I didn’t quite follow. I think of it as price and quantity adjustments. In the fixed exchange rate price is fixed. so quantity must change with a change in demand or the market won’t clear. In a floating regime, the price adjusts.

      And it’s funny you should ask because the same question came up on e-mail, and one of my MMT friends explained it via e-mail this way:

      “EZ bank has lost a euro deposit liability. It has two choices. It must sell assets (euro denominated loans or securities) or it must borrow euro reserves somehow in overnight or wholesale market.

      US bank has to buy assets on offer from EZ bank or loan euros to EZ bank. paying for it with euros acquired from EZ depositor switching to a US dollar denominated account.

      No net change in US money supply. No net change in EZ money supply. Upward pressure on US dollar relative to euro exchange rate as portfolio preferences have shifted to favor US dollar denominated assets.”

      1. SH says

        Thanks, I’m a geek on some levels and this stuff ain’t easy. I’ll leave more questions ’till next time.

    2. SH says

      So on a dollar Euro swap, what happens?

      In June of 2011, a borrower decided to borrow in dollars. He did this because rates were lower. He agreed to a dollar loan. Today, the dollar he borrowed is not worth as much and because he only has Euros he has to sell more Euros than he expected to buy back the dollar. In aggregate, there are a lot of Euro sellers and the Euro drops, the dollar rises and all loans denominated on the carry become more costly.

      This has to be the case. In order to prevent a run on Euros, the Fed steps in and says I will guarantee a better exchange rate on dollars than the market would otherwise dictate in order to prevent a disorderly sell on Euros. Mechanically, the ECB buys the Euros from the bank who needs to pay off the loan at a subsidized rate. The ECB then goes to the Fed, tells them that they bought a claim on one of the Fed’s reserve banks for a dollar, and the payment is credited to the US bank at the rate the Fed guarantees. The Fed extinguishes their dollar claim, and the ECB extinguishes their swap liability and net on net, all that happened was there was a fixed exchange rate when rates otherwise were fluxuating.

      It’s too weird Ed. I may be completely off, but there has to be a way to square the circle. Get Wray to write a primer on swaps.

      Thanks again,


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