Friday, September 30, 2011

Greek century bonds

Škoda Pythagoras, a Greek-made magnet-powered vehicle, helped Greece to repay 1/3 of its €30-trillion debt around 2011. Or did it? Or will it? The man on the picture who introduced the new model in 2095 is Nicolaos Papandreou, a Greek prime minister.

Two weeks, I proposed a scenario
How to save Greece.
The basic goal was to liquidate the short-term and medium-term debt and replace it by some very long-term obligations: something that Greece has to do for nearly a century or so – and especially in a distant future that is 50+ years away. A few hours ago, Reuters announced that
Greece adds century bond to debt options-source
so you might think that BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, and HSBC who are advising Greece and who developed this idea have pretty much reproduced your humble correspondent's idea. But you would only be half-right.

Their new proposal tries to structurally imitate the Brady Bonds that were used in the late 1980s to deal with the debt of some bankrupt Latin American countries. I haven't heard of Brady Bonds before but their critical timescale was just 30 years; everyone feels that Greece will probably be insolvent for a longer time which is why they talk about a 100-year plan.

I am not sure whether it's a good idea. Of course that you may delay any problems for your lifetime by replacing a current problem by a very distant problem: it's just about the number that Greece promises to pay back in 2111 or so. However, you may be creating a true time bomb for the year 2111 because what will be happening between 2011 and 2111 won't naturally "train" the Greek society to deal with the 2111 (Y2K111) problem. Including some interests, it's obvious that Greece would have to be repaying a truly horrifying multi-trillion sum around 2111.

After this science-fiction year, Greece could really die. Or a global conflict could arise because of this huge amount of money. As this D Day would be getting closer, nations may be willing to modify the rules in advance, to prevent a tragic event (or to deal with their increasing certainty that Greece won't pay anything in 2111 once again). We can't know how Greece and its competitiveness will change over the 21st century but I would personally bet that the "national character" won't change radically. Greece is unlikely to become a stellar manager by 2111.

While both proposals, my and the "century bond", work with the replacement of a short-term and medium-term problem by a very long-term problem, they do so differently. In particular, according to my plan, Greece may easily become free of debt and problems by the year 2100 which is unlikely to happen if the country has to repay a multi-trillion debt in century bonds.

The "century bond" kind of assumes that Greece will become a solvent master of its fate and a good manager by 2111; on the contrary, my plan takes the inability of the Greek government to plan its fiscal policies and debt into account and tries to move this responsibility from Greece to the healthier nations (which is surely what should be encouraged because the Greek management and discipline are in a horrible shape) while Greece's obligations would be a constant percentage of public expenses which don't require too much planning.

My proposal has lots of other advantages that I have listed: because the fee linked to the public expenses, it pushes the Greek society to reduce its bloated public sector. And so on. So while I am happy that someone has understood that the replacement of the current problem by a very long-term problem is the way to go, the details of the "century bond" plan look highly suboptimal to me.

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