Euro Zone’s Leveraged Solution to Leverage

If as Albert Einstein observed insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, then the latest proposal for resolving the Euro-zone debt crisis requires psychiatric rather than financial assessment.

The sketchy plan entails Greece restructuring its debt with writedowns around 50% and recapitalisation of the affected banks. The European Financial Stability Funds (“EFSF”) would increase its size to a proposed Euro 2-3 billion from its current Euro 440 billion. This would enable the fund to inject capital into banks and also support Spain and Italy’s financing needs to reduce further contagion risks.

On proposal under consideration entails the EFSF using leverage to increase its size and enhance its ability to intervene effectively. Attributed to US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the proposal is similar to the 2007 Master Liquidity Enhancement Conduit (“MLEC”) super conduit which was ultimately abandoned.

The EFSF would apparently bear the first 20% of losses on sovereign bonds and perhaps its investment in banks. This resembles the equity tranche in a CDO (Collateralised Debt Obligations), which assumes the risk of the initial losses on loans or bond portfolios. Assuming the EFSF contributes Euro 400 billion, the total bailout resources would be around Euro 2,000 billion. Higher leverage, a lower first loss piece, say 10%, would increase available funds to Euro 4 trillion. The European Central Bank (“ECB”) would supply the “protected” debt component to leverage the EFSF’s contribution, bearing losses only above the first loss piece size.

The proposal has a number of problems.

The EFSF does not have Euro 440 billion. After existing commitments to Greece, Ireland and Portugal, its theoretical resources are at best around Euro 250 billion, assuming that the increase to Euro 440 billion is ratified by European parliaments.

The EFSF must borrow money from the markets, relying on its own CDO like structure, backed by a cash first loss cushion and guarantees from Euro-zone countries. In fact, some investors actually value and analyse EFSF bonds as a type of highly rated CDO security known as a super senior tranche. This means that the new arrangement has features of a CDO of a CDO (CDO2), a highly leveraged security which proved toxic in 2007/ 2008.

The ECB, the provider of protected debt, has capital of about Euro 5 billion (to be raised to Euro 10 billion), supporting around Euro 140 billion in bonds issued by beleaguered Euro-zone nations, purchased as part of market operations to reduce their borrowing cost. The ECB has also lent substantial sums (market estimates suggest more than Euro 400 billion) to European banks without access to money markets at acceptable cost, secured over similar bonds. While the Euro-zone central banking system has capital of around Euro 80 billion that could be available to support the ECB’s operations, this adds to the incremental leverage of the arrangements.

The 20% first loss position may be too low. Unlike typical diversified CDO portfolios, the highly concentrated nature of the underlying investments (distressed sovereign debt and equity in distressed banks exposed to the very same sovereigns) and the high default correlation (reflecting the interrelated nature of the exposures) means potential losses could be much higher. Actual losses in sovereign debt restructuring are also variable and could be as high as 75% of the face value of bonds.

The circular nature of the scheme is surreal. Highly leveraged vehicles, in part backed by weakened nations like Spain and Italy, are to undertake the “rescue” of the same countries and their banks. Levering the EFSF merely highlights circularity in the entire European strategy of bailouts, drawing attention to the correlated default risks between the guarantor pool and the asset portfolio of the bailout fund. This is akin to an entity selling insurance against its own default. This only works if all commitments are fully backed by real cash and savings, which of course nobody actually has, requiring resort to familiar “confidence tricks”.

The proposal assumes that it will not need to be used, avoiding exposing its technical shortcomings. The EFSF too was never meant to be used, relying on the “shock and awe” of the proposal, especially its size and government backing, to resolve the crisis.

The proposal is driven, in reality, by political imperatives – avoiding seeking national parliamentary approval at a time when sentiment is against further bailouts and lack of support for an increase in the size and scope of the EFSF.

It is also designed to reduce the increasing risk to the credit ratings of France and Germany. This last factor is increasingly important given concerns raised by rating agencies about the quantum of contingent liabilities being assumed by these countries. For example, after the increase in the size of the EFSF to Euro 440 billion, Germany’s commitment to the EFSF is over Euro 200 billion.

The scheme may also facilitate the ECB covertly monetising debt, “printing money”; to generate the protected debt to leverage the structure and also to cover the losses on its own exposures to distressed sovereign debt. It is simply another means of allowing the imply another way of requesting that the ECB to expands its balance sheet to absorb increased credit risk.

Unfortunately, this new scheme like previous proposals is unlikely to succeed. As Sigmund Freud observed: “Illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead. We must therefore accept it without complaint when they sometimes collide with a bit of reality against which they are dashed to pieces.

Satyajit Das is author of Extreme Money: The Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk (2011)

A shorter version of this article was first published in the Financial Times