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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Bailouts and Haircuts


I think that was just the third Greek bailout whooshing by? It will be the last one until the next one – or, more likely, until the default. It's clear that Greece is in a mess, the Euro is shaky but more importantly, the banks have dug themselves into a hole.

The bailout money barely gets a quick tour of the Acropolis before the international bankers grab it. It's not really a Greek bailout, it's a bank bailout. The austerity measures are a kind of ritual sacrifice designed to reinforce the message that the Greeks have been very naughty.

In an attempt to get this to stick, the banks have appointed the current Prime Minister of Greece which is quite a trick. The Greek people are not happy with this and there's a risk of a violent overthrow.

What is going to happen one way or another is a default – indeed, it's starting to happen already as some of the debts are reduced by agreement. There's a lot of bleating that this is unthinkable and will have terrible consequences. Actually, “sovereign defaults” are not at all rare although they're often sugar-coated.

We've done them several times in the UK. The latest was called “Quantitative Easing” (which sounds lovely) when the Bank of England created £50B out of thin air. Another example was in 1967 when we devalued the pound. Harold Wilson told us that “the pound in your pocket" had not lost its value. What he didn't say was that he'd imposed a 14.7% haircut on people who'd lent us money denominated in pounds.

The Greeks don't have these options since they're in the Euro. So they'll default – probably by imposing ever more severe haircuts on the creditors.

I'm sure that some of my readers will be wondering how the Greeks are in any position to impose anything on anyone? If you've ever been in the position of having someone owing you a lot of money and being unable to pay, you'll know that the power balance is reversed. They tell you “Sure, make us bankrupt, you'll get nothing – but if you wait or agree to a further haircut, it will be better for you”

It's a banker's nightmare of course. :-)

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