By John R. Taylor, Jr. Chief Investment Officer FX Concepts
Global investors either have extremely short memories or they are far too concrete, as my wife the psychologist would say. Saying that Greece is not a bank but a country means nothing. Almost all Europeans argue that a default by the Greek government would now be more straightforward and not as significant as the collapse and bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, especially since the Eurozone, under the influence of the surplus countries, has effectively ‘ring-fenced’ Greece from the other 16 members. Lehman was not a very large factor in the global banking scene with less than one quarter the capital of the biggest US banks and with assets below those of more than 100 banks around the world. Greece might represent less than 3% of the GDP of the Eurozone, but when lined up against Lehman, Greece stands larger in its relevant market. Anyone can read the newspapers, blogs, and Internet scribblings before the Lehman collapse and see that the impact of its collapse was not expected to be significant. Tim Geithner, then head of the New York Fed, worked to arrange the emergency liquidation of Lehman’s assets and there were expectations that the company could be sold to Bank of America or Barclays, but the Bank of England vetoed a sale to Barclays and the US government refused to lend any support to Bank of America in its effort to buy Lehman.
Rereading the documents and remembering the situation as I set out for a weekend cruise on the Chesapeake, the world was not worried. The market had already seen the rescues or restructuring of Washington Mutual, Countrywide, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, so no one was worried. This looked like another Bear Stearns, a manageable problem but this time the Bush administration was not interested in getting involved – ‘let the market solve this, don’t throw good money after the bad.’ So, what is the difference now? The world is as blasé about a Greek default or departure from the euro as it can be – credit spreads are dropping, the other weak Eurozone sovereigns are financing themselves easily, and everyone thinks the LTRO has solved the problem for the next year or two. Why should we worry about Greece? Who cares if their unemployment is 20.9% and climbing very fast, or that it is now in its fifth year of declining GDP? Let’s teach them a lesson!
Hubris is at the heart of this. Everyone says this cannot happen – we won’t allow it. Says who? The EU says: if it is written in an agreement, it must be totally correct, unchangeable, and followed at all costs. New realities can’t intervene and no slippage is allowed. Why the Germans are so sure that they know the future is beyond me. They are fallible too, but they won’t admit it, and the Greeks can’t make them budge. Haven’t they looked around? Santorini has a different economic and social cost structure than Wiesbaden. Humanity (and common sense) seems totally lacking in the negotiations with the Greeks and a violent backlash would be totally understandable. Why the countries that have been fattening up their current account surpluses selling products to Greeks, whom they should have known were basically broke – just as they always have been – should be paid 100% on the euro is beyond me. Major losses should apply not only to sovereign borrowings but also to accounts receivable for cars, electronics, and other consumer goods. The market has not opened its eyes to the impact this Greek unraveling will have. The Eurozone will be mortally wounded and the world will suffer a significant recession – maybe as deep as 2008. European banks will lose much of their capital base and many should be bankrupt, but just as in the Lehman aftermath, the governments will try to save the banks and the banks’ bondholders, solvent or not. As the bank appetite for Eurozone sovereign paper will be decimated, austerity will probably follow shortly, followed by deflation and uncontrollable money creation. The European recession should be one for the record books.