Sunday, May 30, 2010

Subordinated debt

Amidst a discussion of the difficulties facing Greek restructuring of its debt, John Dizard gives a good overview of subordinated debt.

As I have written, Greece is in a better legal position to reschedule its sovereign debt on favourable terms than, say, Argentina back at the end of 2001. About 90 per cent of Greek sovereign debt is in the form of bonds governed by Greek law.

That means if Greece wants to reschedule the interest rate and maturity of its debt, its national parliament can just pass a law decreeing the new terms. Investors would have no legal recourse.

The practical problem with doing that unilaterally is that Greece is still running large fiscal and trade deficits, so it cannot yet run its economy on a cash basis, as Argentina and others did after their defaults. That is why the European Union-International Monetary Fund stabilisation package is needed to cover maturing debt issues and also the continuing twin deficits, at least for the three years the facilities are supposed to be in place.

From the Greek point of view, though, it doesn't make sense for the three-year plan to run its course, even if the country meets its financial targets. Assuming it all works, Greece would have a substantially higher debt that would not be in the form of loosely covenanted Greek-law bonds, but virtually un-defaultable obligations to European governments, the EU and the IMF. The notion that banks or bond investors would be willing, at that point, to offer deeply subordinated credit to Greece is mere fantasy.

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