Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

Why Greek Debt is Going Long

Governments don't want to write down the face value of Greek debt--so instead they're stretching out the payments.

11.27.12 4:43 PM ET

Felix Salmon studies the Greek debt deal, and ponders the difference between public and private restructurings: 

This deal isn’t just the latest chassé in the long dance between Greece and its creditors; it’s a blueprint for every other European country with unsustainable official-sector debts as well. Including Greece itself, which will surely require another deal like this down the road. And it encapsulates the big difference between the way the private sector likes to deal with big debts, in contrast to the way the official sector does it.

The private sector likes a big one-and-done deal, where you start with a massive debt stock, and then you swap it for something smaller. The key number is the “NPV haircut”: the value of a bond is the net present value of its future cashflows, and so a big cut in coupons, or a terming out of interest payments, can be just as drastic, from a bondholder’s point of view, as a cut in principal. There’s nothing sacred about principal: what matters is the mark-to-market value of the bond.

The official sector, by contrast, holds principal highly sacred. That allows the Germans and others to say that they aren’t forgiving any debt; it also means that no national parliament needs to ratify a bill writing off any Greek debt. On the other hand, the official sector is happy to term out maturities until, as Buchheit puts it, the 12th of never, and also cut coupon payments at the same time.

I don’t know if anybody’s done the math to work out what the effective NPV haircut is here, especially if you also add in things like the way that Greek interest payments are going to get recirculated back to Greece in a weird kind of rebate program. In a way, it doesn’t matter, because the lesson here is that when push comes to shove, the official sector will always agree to let Greece (or any other troubled Eurozone country) term out its obligations instead of risking a default.

This is stupid, of course.  On the other hand, in the annals of "dumb things politicians do to get unpopular policies past the public", it's basically harmless: a haircut is a haircut is a haircut.  If European governments want to take their writedowns in the form of term extensions rather than reductions in face value, it's hard to see what difference that makes.  I mean, except to the folks who were betting on Greek default, and hey, better luck next time.  But it's not like they couldn't see this one coming.