In the eye of the storm : the debt crisis in the European Union (2/7)

The great Greek bond bazaar

14 September 2011 by Eric Toussaint

In July-September 2011 the stock markets were again shaken at international level. The crisis has become deeper in the EU, particularly with respect to debts. The CADTM interviewed Eric Toussaint about various facets of this new stage in the crisis.

Part 2: The great Greek bond Bond A bond is a stake in a debt issued by a company or governmental body. The holder of the bond, the creditor, is entitled to interest and reimbursement of the principal. If the company is listed, the holder can also sell the bond on a stock-exchange. bazaar

CADTM: You say |1| that since the crisis broke out in May 2010 Greece has stopped issuing 10-year bonds. Why then do markets demand a yield Yield The income return on an investment. This refers to the interest or dividends received from a security and is usually expressed annually as a percentage based on the investment’s cost, its current market value or its face value. of 15% or more on Greece’s 10-year bonds? |2|

Eric Toussaint: This has an influence on the sale price of older Greek debt bonds exchanged on the secondary market Secondary market The market where institutional investors resell and purchase financial assets. Thus the secondary market is the market where already existing financial assets are traded. or on the OTC OTC
Over-the-Counter market
An over-the-counter or off-exchange market is an unregulated market on which transactions are made directly between the seller and the purchaser, as opposed to a so-called organized or regulated market where there is a regulatory authority, such as a stock exchange.
There is another much more important consequence, namely that it forces Greece to make a choice between two alternatives:

a) either depend even further on the Troika Troika Troika: IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank, which together impose austerity measures through the conditions tied to loans to countries in difficulty.

International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
European Central Bank
The European Central Bank is a European institution based in Frankfurt, founded in 1998, to which the countries of the Eurozone have transferred their monetary powers. Its official role is to ensure price stability by combating inflation within that Zone. Its three decision-making organs (the Executive Board, the Governing Council and the General Council) are composed of governors of the central banks of the member states and/or recognized specialists. According to its statutes, it is politically ‘independent’ but it is directly influenced by the world of finance.
, EC) to get long-term loans (10-15-30 years) and submit to their conditions;
b) or refuse the diktats of markets and of the Troika and suspend payment while starting an audit in order to repudiate the illegitimate part of its debt.

CADTM: Before we look at these alternatives, can you explain what the secondary market is?

Eric Toussaint: As it the case for used cars, there is a second-hand market for debts. Institutional investors Institutional investors Entities which pool large sums of money and invest those sums in securities, real property and other investment assets. They are principally banks, insurance companies, pension funds and by extension all organizations that invest collectively in transferable securities. and hedge funds Hedge funds Unlisted investment funds that exist for purposes of speculation and that seek high returns, make liberal use of derivatives, especially options, and frequently make use of leverage. The main hedge funds are independent of banks, although banks frequently have their own hedge funds. Hedge funds come under the category of shadow banking. buy or sell used bonds on the secondary market or on the OTC (over the counter) market. Institutional investors are by far the main actors.

The last time Greece issued ten-year bonds was on 11 March 2010, before speculative attacks started and the Troika intervened. In March 2010, to get 5 billion euros, it committed itself to an interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. rate of 6.25% every year until 2020. By that date it will have to repay the borrowed capital. Since then, as we have seen, it no longer borrows for ten years because rates blew up. When we read that the ten-year interest rate is 14.86% (on 8 August 2011 when the 10-year Greek rate, which had been as high as 18%, was again below 15% after the ECB’s intervention), this indicates the price at which ten-year bonds are exchanged on the secondary or OTC markets.

Institutional investors who bought those bonds in March 2010 are trying to sell them off on the debt secondary market because they have become high risk bonds, given the possibility that Greece may not be able to refund their value when they reach maturity.

CADTM: Can you explain how the second-hand price of the ten-year bonds issued by Greece is determined?

Eric Toussaint: The following table should help us understand what is meant by saying that the Greek rate for ten years amounts to 14.86%. Let us take an example: a bank bought Greek bonds in March 2010 for EUR 500 million, with each bond representing 1,000 euros. The bank will cash EUR 62.5 each year (i.e. 6.25% of EUR1,000) for each bond. In security market lingo, a bond will yield a EUR 62.5 coupon. In 2011 those bonds are regarded as risky since it is by no means certain that by 2020 Greece will be able to repay the borrowed capital. So the banks that have many Greek bonds, such as BNP Paribas (that still had EUR 5 billion in July 2011), Dexia (3.5 billion), Commerzbank (3 billion), Generali (3 billion), Société Générale (2.7 billion), Royal Bank of Scotland, Allianz or Greek banks, now sell their bonds on the secondary market because they have junk or toxic bonds in their balance Balance End of year statement of a company’s assets (what the company possesses) and liabilities (what it owes). In other words, the assets provide information about how the funds collected by the company have been used; and the liabilities, about the origins of those funds. sheets. In order to reassure their shareholders (and to prevent them from selling their shares), their clients (and to prevent them from withdrawing their savings) and European authorities, they must get rid of as many Greek bonds as they can, after having gobbled them up until March 2010. What price can they sell them for? This is where the 14.86% rate plays a part. Hedge funds and other vulture funds Vulture funds
Vulture fund
Investment funds who buy, on the secondary markets and at a significant discount, bonds once emitted by countries that are having repayment difficulties, from investors who prefer to cut their losses and take what price they can get in order to unload the risk from their books. The Vulture Funds then pursue the issuing country for the full amount of the debt they have purchased, not hesitating to seek decisions before, usually, British or US courts where the law is favourable to creditors.
that are ready to buy Greek bonds issued in March 2010 want a yield of 14.86%. If they buy bonds that yield EUR 62.5, this amount must represent 14.86% of the purchasing price, so the bonds are sold for only EUR 420.50.

| |Nominal value of a 10-year bond issued by Greece on 11 March 2010|Interest rate on 11 March 2010|Value of the coupon paid each year to the owner of a EUR1,000 bond|Price of the bond on the secondary market on 8 August 2011|Actual yield on 8 August 2011 if the buyer bought a EUR 1,000 bond for EUR 420.50| |Example|EUR 1,000|6,25%|EUR 62,5|EUR 420,50|14,86%|

To sum up: buyers will not pay more than EUR 420.50 for a EUR 1,000 bond if they want to receive an actual interest rate of 14.86%. As you can imagine, bankers are not too willing to sell at such a loss.

CADTM: You say that institutional investors sell Greek bonds. Do you have any idea on what scale?

Eric Toussaint: As they tried to minimize the risks they took, French banks reduced their Greek exposure by 44% (from USD 27 billion to USD 15 billion) in 2010. German banks proceeded similarly: their direct exposure decreased by 37,5% between May 2010 and February 2011 (from EUR 16 to EUR 10 billion). In 2011 this withdrawal movement has become even more noticeable.

CADTM: What does the ECB do in this respect?

Eric Toussaint: The ECB is entirely devoted to serving the bankers’ interests.

CADTM: But how?

Eric Toussaint: Through buying Greek bonds itself on the secondary market. The ECB buys from the private banks that wish to get rid of securities backed on the Greek debt with a valuation haircut of about 20%. It pays approximately EUR 800 for a bond whose value was EUR 1,000€ when issued. Now, as appears from the table above, these bonds are valued at much less on the secondary market or on the OTC market. You can easily imagine why the banks appreciate being paid EUR 800 by the ECB rather the market price. This being said, it is another example of the huge gap between the actual practices of private bankers and European leaders on the one hand and their discourse on the need to allow market forces to determine prices on the other.

End of the second part

Translated by Christine Pagnoulle and Vicki Briault in collaboration with Judith Harris

Éric Toussaint, doctor in political sciences (University of Liège and University of Paris 8), president of CADTM Belgium, member of the president’s commission for auditing the debt in Ecuador (CAIC), member of the scientific council of ATTAC France, coauthor of “La Dette ou la Vie”, Aden-CADTM, 2011, contributor to ATTAC’s book “Le piège de la dette publique. Comment s’en sortir”, published by Les liens qui libèrent, Paris, 2011.


|1| See the first part

|2| On 25 August 2011 the Greek rate for 10 years reached 18.55%, on the day before, 17.9%. The rate for 2 years was a staggering 45.9%. (accessed 26 August 2011)


Eric Toussaint

is a historian and political scientist who completed his Ph.D. at the universities of Paris VIII and Liège, is the spokesperson of the CADTM International, and sits on the Scientific Council of ATTAC France. He is the author of Bankocracy (2015); The Life and Crimes of an Exemplary Man (2014); Glance in the Rear View Mirror. Neoliberal Ideology From its Origins to the Present, Haymarket books, Chicago, 2012 (see here), etc. See his bibliography: He co-authored World debt figures 2015 with Pierre Gottiniaux, Daniel Munevar and Antonio Sanabria (2015); and with Damien Millet Debt, the IMF, and the World Bank: Sixty Questions, Sixty Answers, Monthly Review Books, New York, 2010. Since the 4th April 2015 he is the scientific coordinator of the Greek Truth Commission on Public Debt.

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