Category / Sovereign Default

Strange days indicator March 13, 2014 at 5:48 am

According to Reuters, Mexico has begun marketing a new 100-year benchmark bond denominated in sterling. Yes, I had to read it twice too.

Interest(ing) February 19, 2014 at 10:43 pm

Do not charge your fellow man interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.

This passage, and its paraphrase in Hamlet, comes to mind reading Bloomberg’s account of the IMF’s new thinking on sovereign loans. Perhaps one way to interpret the ancient text is as pointing out that debt – obligations that must be repaid on time – is inherently dangerous for both borrower and lender in that the former might not be able to pay promptly, and that can sometimes cause problems for the latter. Naively one might think that deferrable or bail-in’able instruments – like much bank debt these days – are better. Investors are compensated for deferral risk via the coupon, as well as plain default risk (which of course is now much lower as there would often be no need to default). Instead of railing against the IMF’s thinking, as Bloomberg does, perhaps they could consider the stability benefits if all sovereign debt was deferrable?

Are you ready for the sovereign CDS short selling ban? October 28, 2012 at 9:44 am

The implementation date, as the Bond Vigilantes remind us, is 1st November, and boy is it having an impact on spreads:

Eurozone sovereign CDS

Show me the way to Old R March 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Back in May last year, I wrote:

Greek CDS typically trade under Old R restructuring. That fact could be become rather important soon. In Old R trades there is no limit on the maturity of the deliverable obligation, and no tranching in the auction post credit event. That in turn means the cheapest to deliver option may be quite valuable – there may be quite a large spread between short and long-dated bond prices post restructuring. Thus going into the event you can expect the CDS spread/bond spread relationship to be interesting. Everyone who entered into negative basis trades on Greece knew all this, right?

People are now waking up to this. FT alphaville for instance says today:

…Old R trades won’t have bucketed auctions even when the credit event in question is a restructuring.

So the question becomes whether anyone wrote CDS contracts with anything other than Old R trades on Greece. If there are MR or MMR trades there would have to be an auction with buckets.

Now, FT Alphaville didn’t think anyone had MR or MMR trades on Greece. Or, if they did, we thought it would be a booking error that would be cleared up.

But then, we saw this in a note from JP Morgan on February 24th (emphasis ours):

A problem might arise with the CDS contracts that have Mod R or Mod Mod R clauses. Western European sovereign CDS generally use the clause “Old Restructuring” (Old R). Under Old R, there are no maturity limits on deliverables, hence for the majority of the Greek CDS contracts currently in place there will be a single auction with bonds up to 30y maturity deliverable without multiple maturity buckets. But there is a small portion of Greek CDS contracts with Modified Modified Restructuring clauses (Mod Mod R), which means that for these contracts there will be several auctions for multiple maturity buckets. For the settlement of these CDS contracts, there might be bond deliverability shortage for shorter maturity buckets up to 10 years, where only international law bonds will be deliverable, creating some room for a squeeze in the auction process. But again, the universe of these CDS contracts (Mod Mod R) is rather small.

Now, that’s weird.

That was the first we’d ever heard of Greece CDS trades with MR or MMR. And we’re still thinking that someone at some point made a mistake.

Not necessarily. Restructuring is just a convention. You can negotiate whatever you want. Maybe someone needs restructuring to get capital relief*. Maybe they are doing a basket and they want the same restructuring choice on all the names in the basket. Maybe they just ticked the wrong box. But once you have agreed to, say, MMR, changing it to Old R is going to cost something. Pretty soon we’ll see if it was worth paying or not…

Now it is nearly the weekend, and I don’t plan on spending it thinking about CDS, so let me leave you with one of the more interesting google hits on ‘Old R’. Can anyone tell me what a single Oerlikon is and how it might help me in a bond auction?

*That, BTW, is why US corporates trade on XR – the FED does require restructuring as a credit event to give capital relief, while European regulators do. For extra amusement, read the letter from the insurers to ISDA over Xerox. It is in appendix one of this document, the choice sentence being ‘The current definition of Restructuring is clearly not workable if it is susceptible to the misinterpretation, as it apparently is in the minds of certain market participants, that there has been a Credit Event with respect to Xerox.’

The full Argentina (and other options) February 24, 2012 at 6:40 am

Try playing So, what would your plan for Greece be?; it’s fun and insightful.

I got 52 the first time around, 5 the second. Interestingly reading the comments, those, 53, and 10 seem to be the most popular answers, with the full Argentina leading. My favourite comment though was the suggestion that the game should be called Dungeons and Draghi…

A gift from Hereford for Moody’s February 15, 2012 at 11:25 am

The last post, BTW, was no. 1,500. Thank you wordpress for your sterling service over one and a half thousand posts.

Now to substantive if not entirely serious matters. You see, I was musing given all the furore over Moody’s placing us on negative outlook, shouldn’t we really teach them not to mess with sovereigns? We have those men in Hereford who work for the government, so surely some gentle persuasion can be applied…

Seriously though, does anyone really feel comfortable with the power the agencies still have, despite their manifest failings? As Claire Hill puts it, the history of rating agency reform has not been inspiring. Perhaps it is time to have another go.

Linkfest November 17, 2011 at 8:38 am

I am out of town so this will be brief, but there are a lot of good things around today:

  • Zoltan Pozsar has a nice paper on VoxEU, ‘Can shadow banking be addressed without the balance sheet of the sovereign?’. One of his main points, which we have made before, is that the demand for safe assets was an important contributor towards the crisis. As he says, Seeing the shadow banking system from the perspective of the safe asset demands of institutional cash investors is crucial for drafting the right policies for shadow banking.
  • A lovely piece from FT alphaville on the interaction between CVA hedging and sovereign CDS. Amusingly, they use data from the EBA stress tests to show how big this problem is for European banks.
  • Another good piece from Alphaville (these guys are on fire this week) about the impact of the IRC on European sovereign bond prices. They kindly refer back to an old point of mine about the IRC creating pressure to move bonds to the banking book, as ask

    All the other factors now driving the crisis speak against holding sovereign debt in banking books as well, increasingly. No?

    They are of course right about that. But if the TB/BB boundary is flexible, in other words you can just move sovereign bonds that you had in the TB into the BB with no impact on strategy and a big saving on capital, why wouldn’t you. A great question in this context is where is sovereign bond repo booked: TB or BB.

  • Finally, a Dealbook piece by Jesse Eisinger that quotes me as saying that ‘I’m pretty certain that clearing is being imposed without anyone actually knowing whether it actually reduces counterparty risk or not.’ Just to be clear, what I mean by that specifically is that the problem of whether the multilateral netting benefits of clearing (clearable OTC trades with A and B are now both with the CCP, resulting in risk reduction) outweigh the disadvantage of splitting netting sets (trades with A are split into clearable ones, now with the CCP, and unclearable ones, now still with A) is still open. So far as I know, there is no study of this that makes remotely plausible assumptions about the multiplicity of CCPs for multi-currency, multi-asset portfolios.

Were the markets bamboozled by the Euro? November 15, 2011 at 6:28 am

This picture is from Pictet (via the ever helpful FT alphaville):

Eurozone bond spreads before and after union

Alphaville’s question is, given this, was Union sensible? I think it clearly was; on a weighted average spread basis, the EZ countries are still doing better than they were prior to the Euro, and even if they weren’t, those eight or nine years of low spreads were worth having (or at least they would have been if the money had been spent sensibly). In any event, what interests me more is why spreads were so low for so long. It seems to me that there are three (not necessarily mutually exclusive) possibilities:

  • Despite having thousands of smart people looking at these things, the markets were wrong about what the bond spreads of Eurozone countries should be. They have now woken up.
  • The markets have over-reacted to current events, and spreads are now well above where ‘fundamentals’ would suggest they ‘should be’ (whatever that means).
  • The markets are right, and the spread changes have been in response to new information, specifically the discovery that leading EZ politicans are unwilling or unable to backstop the periphery.

I’m not sure where I come out on this yet…

The European dream – soon to be rubble? November 10, 2011 at 12:01 am

We won't pay

The Guardian says:

Reports that Germany and France have begun talks to break up the eurozone amid fears that Italy will be too big to rescue

If this happens, it will make the aftermath of Lehman look like a day in the park. An utterly preventable disaster is now looking entirely possible. Truly our leaders have let us down.

Update. I strive not to be drawn into hysteria. As the economist says:

I hate to get this pessimistic about the situation. It feels panicky and overwrought. I can’t believe that Europe would allow so damaging an outcome as a financial collapse and break-up to occur… the window within which something could be done to prevent it is closing, and fast. I hope to be proven astoundingly wrong in my assessment, but I’m struggling to see alternative outcomes.

These folks are not known for proclaiming the end of the world on a regular basis. Neither is Brad DeLong, and he says:

I have been complaining for some time now that Reinhart and Rogoff think that the time is always 1931 and that we are always Austria–that the great fiscal crisis is about to erupt and send us [i.e. the US] lurching down toward Great Depression II.

Well, right now guess what? The time is 1931, and we are Austria.

The Federal Reserve needs to buy up every single European bond owned by every single American financial institution for cash before the increase in eurorisk leads American finance to tighten credit again and send us down into the double dip.

The Federal Reserve Needs to do so now.

A little historical perspective may be helpful. One of the first events in the Great Depression, and a major contributor to the loss of confidence, was the failure of Creditanstalt. This was a proto-investment bank, one of the largest in Austria; its collapse was unexpected – just like Lehman. So, um, yes Brad; it does look altogether too much like 1931 for comfort.

An interesting demand October 19, 2011 at 10:19 pm

The forgive student debt movement seems to be gaining some traction. What I think is interesting about this – other than the fact that ex-students seem rather more deserving of forgiveness to me than sovereigns who have spent beyond their means – is the change in tone of the debate. Suddenly, partly thanks to the visibility of OWS, a lot seems possible. Now certainly history is littered with popular protest movements that came to nothing, but equally progressive change is unlikely without this kind of clamour. The autumn has signs of spring.

Update. I love the use of the term temporary autonomous zone for what is happening in Zuccotti Park. For more on that, including a lovely analogy from Slavoj Žižek (and a measure of utter nonsense), see here.

Default big, default often September 16, 2011 at 7:44 am

Mario Blejer, a former Bank of England adviser who took charge of Argentina’s central bank after the 2001 default, has been reported on Bloomberg:

Greece should default, and default big,… Germany and France will have to bear the brunt of financing efforts to help Greece and other countries that default re-start their economies, he said.

For what it is worth, he has an interesting point. If default is inevitable, then get it out of the way, and then you can start to grow again. Clearly the lower recovery you give, the more debts are extinguished, and hence the better your chances of recovering. Sadly we have moved from ‘if’ to ‘when’ so my sense is that Blejer is right; an early default would actually allow us to move on from the Euro tragedy that is unfolding. (That’s a German word, right, Eurotragik?)

Understanding the Euro with Charles September 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Getting out of the Euro

Goodness, I like Charles’ comment to my previous post more than the original. Let us indeed go with the Geuro (pronounced ‘gyro’; it has got all the meaty countries in it) consisting of Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Slovenia; and the Feuro (pronounced ‘furo’; the countries in it are going to take a bath) for Belgium, France, Portugal and Spain. As Charles says, if Belgium splits, then Wallonia has the Feuro while Flanders goes with the Geuro.

I’m not entirely sure I buy the line about Italy having to be out, though; or at least (sorry Charles), I don’t see the argument for excluding Italy as more persuasive than the one for excluding Spain. Indeed, the top half of Italy would perfectly naturally fit with the Geuro countries. It’s the bottom half that causes the issues…

Questions not to ask – sovereign risk edition July 26, 2011 at 9:10 am

Buried in the recent Basel Committee FAQ on the market risk framework – basically a set of answers to questions banks have asked about how to interpret the rules – we find:

Should sovereign bonds be included in the IRC charge?


The definition of specific risk in paragraph 709(iii), first sentence, is quite generic. Consequently, it does not scope out any particular securities. When an acceptable IRC model identifies sovereign bonds as subject to migration and default risk, the capital charge should be determined accordingly. Even if certain sovereign bonds are subject to a risk weight of 0% under the standardised approach (cf. paragraph 710), they cannot be considered as free of default and migration risk. Therefore, sovereign risk should be included in the scope of the incremental risk capital charge. Sovereign bonds must therefore be included in the relevant model. A general partial use of the standardised approach for sovereign bonds, ie exclusion of positions subject to a risk weight of 0% under the standardised approach from IRC, will not be granted. Accordingly, they will attract a capital charge under the IRC, except where the output of the model happens not to imply a capital charge for these positions.

Now, to interpret this you need to know that the IRC or incremental risk charge is one of the new trading book capital charges imposed under the Basel 2.5 changes, and due to come into force on both sides of the Atlantic shortly. Most if not all large banks will have IRC models for their trading books. This ‘interpretation’ from Basel will therefore ensure that sovereign risk is properly capitalized in these banks’ trading books. All this does of course is give the banks an even greater incentive to put such bonds in the banking book where they will be subject to the kinder disciplines of the IRB (where my guess is that some banks have the lowest permitted PD for sovereign exposures).

One question though – which idiot asked the Basel Committee to clarify this?

I have a bad feeling about this July 25, 2011 at 8:01 am

It is midsummer, there is no budget deal, the markets are quiet, and everyone is pig tired of dealing with crises. This could go badly. I’d say go to cash, but then the question is what currency – if a budget deal is done then the Swiss Franc will likely sell off fast, for instance; but if it isn’t, it is a least a safe haven. Unless the Swiss intervene to prevent further appreciation. Now would be a good time for someone to come up with a genuinely uncorrelated asset…

Scorecard July 1, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Strauss-Kahn sex assault case ‘close to collapse’. Score 1. (Deus Ex post here.)

French Finance Minister Lagarde chosen to lead IMF. Score 0. (Deus Ex post here.)

Greece Set to Get Aid Payment as Banks, Lawmakers Fall in Line on Crisis. Score 1. (Deus Ex post here.)

Total 2/3: pass but must try harder.

Waiting for a default June 17, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Waiting for a default?Much of the financial world seems to be waiting for a Greek default. I am still with Barclays; I don’t think that it is happening, at least this year. OK, John Lipsky is a wildcard whose behaviour might turn the mildest of men into a conspiracy theorist, but this is still fundamentally about politics rather than economics. Krugman can huff and puff all he wants; self interest has rather little to do with this story.

Chrysia Freeland, meanwhile, reminds us of the positives of the European project amid the gloom: she asks what made the revolutions in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic succeed and suggests that the answer is Europe and the promise of membership in the European Union. Quoting some lovely phrases of Wanda Rapaczynski’s, Freeland describes the reforms that preceded membership in the European Union as a period of “sponsored transformation” and says “once the pressure of the beauty contest was off, the pace of reform slowed.” At a moment when many are questioning the value and the durability of the European experiment, Rapaczynski’s reminder of the positive power the European idea has had in the eastern half of the Continent is timely. Exactly right.

Swap me up before you go, go May 28, 2011 at 12:12 pm

FT alphaville suggests that a consequence of the CFTC proposed rule whereby sovereigns (except the US, naturally) will have to post collateral to US swap dealers on OTC derivatives is that US swap dealers won’t do many trades with sovereigns. They are of course right. The large European, Asian and Latin American debt management offices will not post collateral at the whim of the Americans – or anyone else.

Should they (and indeed the US government) be obliged to post? Well, it depends. If they had to, they would have to find the money from somewhere, and that would increase their levels of debt. On the other hand, one way CSAs, whereby the dealers have to post collateral to the sovereign but not vice versa, are a liquidity drain on the banking system.

The clinch argument for me, though, is CVA. Uncollateralised derivatives create a big CVA. (See here or here for a description of CVA and how it arises.) Basel 3 will require banks to hedge their CVA well or take capital against it. Critically this includes CVA from sovereign transactions. The way you hedge CVA is to buy CDS. Thus when you see a picture like these two from the Alphaville post:

5 Biggest Increases in Net Sovereign CDS

5 Next Biggest Increases in Net Sovereign CDS

What should ask yourself is ‘how much of this increase in CDS trading is caused by CVA hedging?

The prior post suggests that there is only $4-30 Billion net notional of CDS on even the biggest countries. My guess is that the major swap dealers need a good deal more liquidity than that to hedge their collective CVA position without moving the market.

The Basel 3 CVA rules, then, are a huge shot in the foot for governments. (A 50mm shell in the foot, maybe.) By forcing banks to hedge their sovereign CVA, they have increased the demand for sovereign CDS. That drives out spreads, which in turn increases borrowing costs for governments. The problem could be largely solved if sovereigns would agree to post collateral – but they won’t.

Top twenty sovereigns by CDS net notional May 27, 2011 at 10:26 am

This is data for the next post. It comprises the top twenty sovereigns by CDS net notional currently as reported to the DTCC.

ReferenceMarketNotional (USD EQ)
ITALY GovernmentSov283,927,804,66726,010,413,830
FRANCE GovernmentSov101,420,159,58320,476,736,659
SPAIN GovernmentSov164,190,071,87019,015,765,467
BRAZIL GovernmentSov182,459,566,76016,655,151,570
UK GovernmentSov62,416,026,45811,946,899,325

Greek CDS… May 24, 2011 at 6:54 am

The Restructuring Police?… typically trade under Old R restructuring. That fact could be become rather important soon. In Old R trades there is no limit on the maturity of the deliverable obligation, and no tranching in the auction post credit event. That in turn means the cheapest to deliver option may be quite valuable – there may be quite a large spread between short and long-dated bond prices post restructuring. Thus going into the event you can expect the CDS spread/bond spread relationship to be interesting. Everyone who entered into negative basis trades on Greece knew all this, right?

Update. Here are a few more links: more on negative basis trades on Greece and Barcap’s thoughts on how Greece will go (a soft restructuring which does not trigger CDS followed by a hard one a little while later that does).

Who pays? May 13, 2011 at 7:34 am

Why rob a bank?

Because that is where the money is.

That’s Sutton’s law, and a lot of sense it makes too. So, if you are a sovereign without enough money, who do you go to? Someone with money.

This means that there are only a limited number of choices for solving the endebtedness problem in advanced nations. Your choices are one or more of:

  • Individual taxpayers;
  • Individual consumers;
  • Corporate taxpayers;
  • Corporate consumers;
  • Government bond holders;
  • Foreigners.

The last won’t work for ever; you can’t keep increasing your borrowing as a percentage of GDP. Sovereign default or restructuring works, but it stops you from being able to borrow again for some time. Thus central bankers often think that you have to bear most of the burden internally. That makes it a pain allocation problem. Increase taxes; decrease services: these things are unpopular.

Reinhart and Sbrancia point out an interesting mechanism that allows governments to give some of the pain to bond holders without the stigma of a hard restructuring. From their abstract:

A subtle type of debt restructuring takes the form of “financial
repression.” Financial repression includes directed lending to government by captive domestic audiences (such as pension funds), explicit or implicit caps on interest rates, regulation of cross-border capital movements, and (generally) a tighter connection between government and banks… Low nominal interest rates help reduce debt servicing costs while a high incidence of negative real interest rates liquidates or erodes the real value of government debt. Thus, financial repression is most successful in liquidating debts when accompanied by a steady dose of inflation.

Think of this as a subtle form of taxation. By providing negative real returns, governments can slowly take money from bond holders. Of course solving a government endebtedness problem this way also requires spending to grow less slowly than inflation, which is difficult. But it does provide a mechanism which many advanced nations will find attractive. The Bond Vigilantes don’t think we are there yet. But I suspect that we will be in due course.