Winners and Losers

European leaders are in conference as this is being written. Their sole concern is to determine the shares of the Losers from the lending boom.  Candidates for Loser shares include:

  1. The Greek citizens  –  this has been the first place that they wanted to go.  But so far the Greeks have shrugged off attempts to get them to even stop running up additional debt, let alone repaying any old debt.  Realists are now struggling with trying to determine who else they can find to take the Loser shares.  The efforts of the Greek government have all been to slow the rate of new borrowing, and those have fallen short of goals.
  2. The non-Greek Europeans  –  this approach is accomplished through a government to government or government to ECB to government transfer of money.  This has been the central approach to date.  This approach is limited because of the reluctance of the German people (and therefore their politicians) to take a larger Loser share.  Their concern is that the Greek citizens have been the winners (through excessive government spending and salaries) so the Germans who have been frugal and prudent should not be providing a larger share than the Winners.
  3. The banks  –  who all somehow managed to own greater or lesser amounts of Greek debt.  Unfortunately, these banks are mostly European.  And if forced to bare the bulk of the losses might find themselves in need of government bailouts.  Back to the non-Greek Europeans.   But it is worthwhile to think for a minute what making the banks taking a large Loser share would involve.  If the banks take a large Loser share, they have to decide who among six parties will they then spread the share to.  Those parties are:  bondholders, stockholders, management, employees, customers and other counterparties.
  4. Non- Europeans  –  enter the IMF which has made smaller contributions to this situation than the Europenas, but not insignificant contributions.  The involvement of the IMF creates interesting precedents for future situations.  The Greeks are proving that there is no reason whatsoever to ever comply with international financial covenants.  The IMF was famous for imposing draconian requirements on those to whom it lends.  But that story is being rewritten by the Europeans.  To some it appears that there are two sets of rules when it comes to loans from the IMF.  And where you live determines which set of rules apply.

So back to the negotiating table.  History of the past 10 years has shown that the Greek government will agree to any terms, but will have trouble delivering on anything.  Countries have not recently tried living without banks.  But most assume that would be fairly difficult.  So in the end, the European people will pick up the tab.  It seems makes sense to settle this sooner rather than later so that it will be possible to put a stop to further Greek overspending.  But that sensible concern does not seem to be moving the leaders to doing the difficult work of assigning the Loser shares.

Clearly, there was not any realistic discussion of this possible situation BEFORE the crisis.  The Greeks promised repeatedly not to ever get close to this sort of mess.  The banks have rules against lending to entities who are not likely to repay and they have regulators whose job it is to make sure that they do not get in over their head.   Governments presumed, perhaps without any basis in reality, to believe that those three lines of defense would be more than enough.

The response ultimately needs to be something other than adding two more nevers to the promise to never, never, never, never let this happen again. 

An actuary from one insurer often tells the story that his firm will always want to understand how a new product might fail before they agree to start selling that product.

Perhaps that is what is needed for countries and their banking systems.  They need to think through how things might break and say in advance who will bare the Loser shares.  In really having that discussion, perhaps it will become clear that it is much easier to distribute losses when they are smaller and that their main task needs to be to identify and deal with Loser shares when they are smaller rather than the recent strategy of hoping that they would go away.

Some might suggest that there are a set of rules in place for that.  But the evidence is clear that those rules are insufficient.  We all need to get realistic about these situations and develop a new set of rules that might carry us for another 50+ years.  Rather than solutions that work for a few months.

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