Banks and Greece’s bailouts
Greece’s 2010 assistance program was largely a bailout of European banks, initiated to prevent a wider banking crisis. I didn’t expect this claim, from the previous post, to be very contentious. But apparently it is, so I’ll overdocument below. Certainly a bank bailout was not the program’s sole purpose — fear of contagion to other indebted Eurosovereigns was also concentrating people’s minds. But the operation was not a huge help to Greece except in the sense replacing private creditors with more generously scheduled official creditors gave the country breathing space.
Commenters have brought up the 2012 program, which is more complicated. It included “private sector involvement”, Eurospeak for getting private creditors to take a haircut on their holdings of Greek debt. That’s a more ambiguous case, and we’ll discuss it below. My view was and remains that the “cramdown” was made possible precisely because the first program helped European banks to reduce their exposures to Greece, both directly by getting paid in full on near-maturity debt, and indirectly by creating time and a window of optimism during which positions could be offloaded without too much impairment. Below, I link some data and and work through an exercise that supports my view, but I certainly don’t claim it is definitive.
Most of this post is going to be documenting stuff. But I want to correct a misperception I fear I may have left with the previous post.
I am not criticizing Europe’s handling of Greece because banks deserved to take a hit and were treated too lightly. It is not the absence of pain and blame that troubles me, but its asymmetry. What was required was a Europe-wide solution to a European problem. What occurred, in my opinion, was the quarantining of a scapegoat. I blame Europe’s leaders for not framing the crisis in a different way, for acting as though it was about alms to Southern miscreants rather than explaining its roots in EU-wide regulatory errors and poor credit allocation incentives, Europe-wide problems that threatened many states. Framed this way, solutions would have looked very different. They would have addressed Germany’s problems and France’s problems as well as those of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and Cyprus. Framed this way, solutions would have been conducive to “ever closer union” one crisis at a time. Instead, leaders chose to inflame national stereotypes. They pretended that there were villains and angels, and that they (and their own constituents, of course) were the angels.
I understand that life happens in real time, people are human, and politicians face pressures and constraints. But if we can admit that of politicians in Brussels, perhaps we might extend the courtesy to politicians in Athens as well. They too inherited their imperfect institutions, and followed paths of less resistance that perhaps were not so virtuous.
The 2010 assistance program was widely understood at the time to be motivated by the need to prevent disruptive write downs at non-Greek banks. The Guardian reported in February 2010 that France and Switzerland had exposures to Greece of €55B each ($119B @ 1.4266 $/€), and Germany €30B ($43B @ 1.4266 $/€), based on BIS data. The Wall Street Journal reported similar values, as does CRS. 
In early 2010, it was not the case that the majority of Greek debt was held by Greek banks, as people seem fond of saying. From the same Guardian piece:
Analysts…dismissed as misplaced concerns that Greek banks might be holding all the €300bn of debt in issuance. “Greek banks own around €40bn of the total…implying most Greek debt is sitting on the balance sheets of non-domestic banks,” said Jagdeep Kalsi, an analyst at Credit Suisse.
From Swiss Daily Tagesanzeiger as translated by Ed Harrison:
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), about two thirds of the debt of Greece is held by foreign creditors — an above average value.
After the program was announced, European economists (but not politicians) frequently explained it as intended to shore up non-Greek banks. Here’s former IMF staffer Gary O’Callaghan, writing in 2011:
The new Portuguese programme is set to be launched in the context of a continuing lack of market credibility in the other two — the Greek and Irish…
[W]hy are [Eurozone finance ministers] supporting these financial assistance programmes? Because, if they are not implemented, the non-payment of debt — including bank debt — by the nations on the periphery would lead to severe banking crises and a return to recession in the core of the eurozone.
Former Bundesbank head Karl Otto Pöhl, just after the 2010 program for Greece was approved:
Pöhl: …a small, indeed a tiny, country like Greece, one with no industrial base, would never be in a position to pay back €300 billion worth of debt.
SPIEGEL: According to the rescue plan, it’s actually €350 billion …
Pöhl: … which that country has even less chance of paying back. Without a “haircut,” a partial debt waiver, it cannot and will not ever happen. So why not immediately? That would have been one alternative. The European Union should have declared half a year ago — or even earlier — that Greek debt needed restructuring.
SPIEGEL: But according to Chancellor Angela Merkel, that would have led to a domino effect, with repercussions for other European states facing debt crises of their own.
Pöhl: I do not believe that. I think it was about something altogether different… It was about protecting German banks, but especially the French banks, from debt write offs. On the day that the rescue package was agreed on, shares of French banks rose by up to 24 percent. Looking at that, you can see what this was really about — namely, rescuing the banks and the rich Greeks.
Pöhl: …They could have slashed the debts by one-third. The banks would then have had to write off a third of their securities.
SPIEGEL: There was fear that investors would not have touched Greek government bonds for years, nor would they have touched the bonds of any other southern European countries.
Pöhl: I believe the opposite would have happened. Investors would quickly have seen that Greece could get a handle on its debt problems. And for that reason, trust would quickly have been restored. But that moment has passed. Now we have this mess.
Strange bedfellows, perhaps.
If this is all nonsense (as a correspondent alleges) because of errors in the BIS exposures data widely known four years ago, I’m not the only one who’s missed the memo. I’m in pretty good company. Here’s banking scholar Anil Kashyap writing just a few days ago:
By the spring of 2010 the excessive debt problem became unbearable and there was open speculation that Greece would default. The country had done this on four occasions previously since 1800. Much of the government debt was owed to banks outside of Greece, with the largest amounts in France and Germany. So if Greece had stopped paying, the French and German banks would have suffered substantial losses.
Greece was lent new money in 2010, but as Karl Otto Pohl former head of the German central bank observed at the time much of that money was used to repay the obligations owned by the French and German banks. The new lending was advertised by the politicians across Europe as a rescue for Greece. But it was at least as much a deal to buy time for the banks and other owners of Greek debt to avoid a default.
2012 Private Sector Involvement (PSI)
In 2012, private sector creditors were indeed asked to take a hit. As I mentioned in the intro, my view is that “PSI” was undertaken in deference to the politics of creditor moral hazard only when, thanks to the 2010 intervention, non-Greek banks were able to reduce their exposure. I’m hardly alone in that view. Again, Anil Kashyap:
By continuing to allow banks everywhere to use Greek debt as collateral, the ECB also created conditions that supported the trading of Greek debt. By this time the French and German banks had shed their exposure to Greece so that they would no longer be directly harmed if there was a default. So the stealth rescue of the non-Greek banks was completed with little public attention and the narrative that all the problems were self-inflicted by the Greeks became more pronounced.
By June 2011, Greek banks did hold the majority of Greek debt, and other banks’ exposure was small enough that large write-downs would be manageable. (Here’s a spreadsheet, published by the Guardian, with data apparently from UBS.)
According to the best discussion of PSI I’ve found, by Jeromin Zettelmeyer, Christoph Trebesch, and Mitu Gulati, the debt exchange was large, affecting €199B of debt at face-value, with a present value of roughly €130B at the time of the exchange (using a discount rate of 15.3%, see Table 4, p. 23). The authors estimate the total debt relief to Greece from the operation to be €98B. Of that €98B, €15.8B are accounted for by subsidies embedded in two below-market loans from official lenders: €8.2B in underpriced borrowing to buy notes from the EFSF (to be distributed as a “sweetener” to encourage creditors to make the exchange), and €7.6B in the form of an underpriced loan to partially recapitalize Greece’s banks (which would be impaired following their own participation in the write-down). That left a subsidy of €98B – €15.8B = €82.2B which had to have been provided by surrendering €130B in debt, for an average write down of 63.2%.
If we assume that the Guardian/UBS exposures linked above are valued at comparable discount rates, we can compute the distribution of the incidence of this cost-to-debt-holders / subsidy-to-Greece. According to that data, Greek banks would have accounted for 45.3% of the €130B debt exchanged, non-Greek banks would have accounted for 25.3%, and unknown non-European-bank holders would account for an additional 29.4%. In absolute € terms, then, Greek banks representing €58.9B of exposure would have transfered €37.3B; non-Greek banks representing €32.9B of exposure would have transfered €20.8B; and unknown non-European-bank holders representing €38.2B of exposure would have transfered €24.2B.
I’d say that non-Greek European banks got off pretty easy in this exercise. If you believe the Credit Suisse analyst cited by The Guardian above, Greek banks held only 13% of Greece’s debt when the 2010 bailout began. Yet in the 2012 exchange, Greek banks were responsible for substantially more of the debt relief than non-Greek banks, even net of the recapitalization subsidy. (€29.7B vs €20.8B)
There’s lots you can quibble with here. Maybe the Guardian/UBS exposures are valued at a very different discount than our 15.3%. Maybe that data’s no good (it’s just the only data I could find). I’m treating all debt as incurring the same write-down. In fact, the size of the write-downs were maturity sensitive, with short maturities incurring larger haircuts than longer maturities, and there’s no reason to think the maturity profile of our three subgroups was identical. Maybe the assumptions beneath the pieces I’m borrowing from Zettelmeyer, Trebesch, and Gulati are wrong. Maybe I’m just screwing something up. (Let me know! Trashy spreadsheet!) But this is about the best I can do on the evidence we actually have. And, tentatively, it doesn’t look like Greece’s pre-2010 bank creditors had it very rough at all, especially when compared to 2010 BIS exposures.
Profile of Greece’s overall finance, 2010 – 2012
The Greek government needed €247 billion in the period from 2010—2012. Of that, a mere 7.7% went to finance the government’s deficit—the rest went for other purposes. Around 15.4% went to pay interest on debt—this money went to both domestic and foreign investors. Another 12.3% went to repay Greek investors who held government bonds that were expiring in that period. A full 24.3%, the largest item, went to repay foreign holders of Greek government bonds—in sum, almost €60 billion. Around 18% went to recapitalize banks, 14% went to support the PSI (such as buying back debt) and 8.6% went for other operations.
In other words, more than 50% of the money that Greece needed in that period was to deal with the country’s excessive debt burden (interest on debt and repaying residents and non-residents). Given that the bank recapitalization and PSI were both, ultimately, linked to the country’s debt, almost 84%, or €206 billion, was ultimately devoted to Greece’s debt—which, at year-end 2009, was €299 billion. Importantly, however, a large sum (€60 billion) went to bailout foreign banks and other investors. So this operation was minimally about covering the current profligacy of the Greek state—it was mostly about covering its pass excesses.
I think that covers it.
 By Twitter, Dave Rabinowitz disputes these values, citing 2011 data and some earlier not-so-accessible investment bank research. It’s not disputed, I think, that exposures were much lower by 2011. That’s much of what buying time with a bailout would be intended to enable. (If Rabinowitz does have better information than the BIS on exposures at the time of the program, and what policymakers at the time would have understood those exposures to be, I hope that he’ll provide it. I’d be glad to offer links in an update.)