Felix Salmon on Greek Default

Felix Salmon, Feb 22 2012, on his blog:

A lot of people have been asking me about the Greek deal in recent days and weeks, and I get a lot of questions like the one I was asked yesterday by Amanda Lang, who asked whether default was in fact inevitable and whether Greece was just putting it off with this deal, kicking the can down the road. A lot of otherwise very well-informed people still think that this bailout is like previous bailouts, designed to avert a default. When in fact a huge default is right at its very heart. When the CDS get triggered, it’s going to be very obvious that this is indeed a Greek default. That’s something which bond market professionals are acutely aware of, but it hasn’t really sunk in to the broader popular consciousness.

If the Greeks and the Europeans can structure a deal where the credit default swaps aren’t triggered and the bondholders voluntarily swap their old bonds for new bonds, then it’s actually possible that this misunderstanding could continue well past the bond exchange, to the point that the broad public thinks that we’ve just seen another bailout, and misses the footnote that the bailout was accompanied by the single largest bond default in the history of the world.

If all goes according to plan, this is going to be an orderly bond default, to be sure — in contrast to the very disorderly defaults we’ve seen in recent years in countries like Argentina and Ecuador. But make no mistake: Ecuador Greece owes €14 billion to its bondholders on March 20. It is not going to make that payment, and instead bondholders who are currently owed 100 cents on March 20 will find themselves instead with a mixture of securities worth maybe 26 cents on the open market. When the CDS get triggered, that fact is going to get hammered home. Because although it has long been priced in to the market, it still isn’t broadly understood.

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