Things in Cyprus: kinda bad. There are better places than here to read about it; I particularly recommend Joseph Cotterill here and here, pseudo-Paweł Morski here and here, Mohammed El-Erian here, the FT’s coverage here and here, the Journal’s round-up of analyst reaction here, etc.
The basic story is that Cyprus’s government and banks are both massively overindebted and need a bailout, and the EU and IMF will provide a €10bn bailout, but they demanded that Cyprus chip in some €7bn, which it has decided to do by means of a tax on deposits in Cypriot banks of 6.75% for up to €100,000 and 9.9% above €100,000. (Is that rate on bigger deposits marginal or absolute? No one knows!) Those numbers are being renegotiated and may end up not being approved by Cyprus’s parliament.
It’s probably good news that “European Union finance ministers reached a landmark deal early Thursday that would bring many of the continent’s banks under a single supervisor,” but of course it wouldn’t be Europe without some self-evidently bad ideas for financial regulation, so today we also get this:
Bankers’ bonuses in Europe would be capped at two times fixed salary under a tentative EU agreement that would mark the most severe crackdown on pay since the 2008 financial crisis.
The European parliament and negotiators for member states drafted a deal in Strasbourg on Thursday that imposes a 1:1 bonus to salary ratio, which can be increased to 2:1 with the backing of a supermajority of shareholders.
Still being negotiated, can change, etc. One could perhaps imagine that once there’s a single eurozone banking supervisor, the warm glow of supervision will shield eurozone banks from this sort of chaotic meddling from the European parliament. Or not, who knows.1
This is mostly bad for the usual reasons: keying bonuses to base salary, without capping base salary, increases fixed costs and thus risk, while reducing bankers’ incentives to actually do a good job at whatever they’re supposed to be doing. A first-best comp scheme would probably involve huge bonuses to reward bankers for doing the things you want them to do; smaller bonuses is perhaps a better scheme than huge bonuses to reward bankers for doing the thing you don’t want them to do, but it’s not a particularly impressive approach. Read more »
Europe is doing various terrible things about short selling today, and go talk about them in the comments, but this whole thing is really boring isn’t it? It’s like the “price gouging is grrreat” arguments that spring up like weeds after natural disasters;1 there’s the thing that politicians do to Convey Emotion and then we over here in the blogs are all “aha that thing is emotional but wrong!” and we all feel good and rational. So let’s, there’s nothing to stop us, we are in fact good and rational and the politicians are in fact emotional and wrong, as we and they always are, so there’s nothing wrong with patting ourselves on the back a bit when it’s demonstrated particularly clearly. I guess.
So, yes, Spain is continuing its ban on short sales of stock for another three months, to reduce volatility, though it seems to have increased volatility,2 because that is how you pantomime “deep concern” to … someone … and “blind panic” to the financial markets. And Europe more broadly has a ban on (1) naked shorting of stock and (2) naked CDS positions that goes into effect today; some things to think about that include:
- The regulation is a mess and is causing freakouts among banks, hedge funds, lawyers, etc.,
- it is hard to imagine it not being bad for the European government bond market, and
- the word “naked” has two different values in that sentence.
One slightly different read of the pan-EU rules is that they are less about their ostensible emotional purpose – “don’t anybody say anything mean about European governments or banks” – and more about market-structural stability. Read more »
UBS is said to be embarking on a “fresh round of cuts” in the investment bank, starting with employees big and small in Europe. Read more »
I liked that the two top articles in Money & Investing in the Journal today were (1) that European banks are buying bonds, and that’s bad, and (2) that American corporates are selling bonds, and that’s bad. And: probably!
The European banks are behaving sensibly:
With the European crisis knocking down the value of banks’ longer-term debt, some are taking advantage by buying back their debt from investors at a discount from the original value. Banks can book the difference in price as an accounting gain, adding to their bottom line — and their ability to withstand losses.
There’s enough opacity in European banking that you could be forgiven for assuming that “accounting gain” means “fake gain.” And indeed one can have an accounting gain merely by having the price of one’s debt drop, and that looks fake-ish. That’s not what’s happening here though: these banks are taking the critical extra step of actually saving money by taking advantage of that price drop. If I sell you a bond for €100 and then buy it back for €90, I have no debt and €10 more than I used to have, so that looks like gain, and also is gain.
Does it look like capital, or as the Journal puts it “ability to withstand losses”? Sure, I mean, money’s money and more of it is better than less. But the Journal and friends are probably not totally wrong to worry. My perhaps idiosyncratic view of bank capital is: you should want your banks to have a relatively long average duration of funding, and be sad if they’re almost exclusively funded via skittish overnight markets, and so (perpetual, fully loss-absorbing) common equity capital is a super way to bring up the average duration but you shouldn’t sneeze at 30-year bonds either, because when the world gets all Bear Stearns on you you don’t have to pay back the thirty-year bonds either.* Read more »
No human can realistically be expected to understand or focus on the constant stream of Eurozone gyrations and in fact humans increasingly don’t, with the half-life of blather-driven euphoria declining rapidly. The latest gyration seems to be that Germany is contemplating letting the Eurozone collective rescue funds think about maybe one day putting up for discussion the possibility of considering buying bonds of distressed countries directly to try to drive down funding costs for those countries.
This seems to have helped Spanish yields more than did the announcement earlier this month that those funds might consider giving Spain €100bn in special senior debt to get its banks sorted, for sort of obvious reasons. If the EFSFSMCBFFFFF is buying hundreds of billions worth of Spanish bonds right alongside whatever brave dopes are buying them already, that buying pressure should push up prices and push down Spanish borrowing costs and improve Spanish sustainability in a virtuous circle etc. etc. If the EFSFSMCBFFFFF is instead putting in its money at a more senior level than those bondholders, then those bondholders are subordinated and, empirically, sad about it.
One weird thing though is that there is little assurance that “EFSFSMCBFFFFF buying the same bonds that everyone else is buying” is actually the same thing as “EFSFSMCBFFFFF ending up with the same bonds that everyone else is buying.” The (not yet ratified!) ESM treaty maybe requires the ESM to be senior to market creditors (maybe!), but also maybe allows it to buy market bonds, which generally are not senior to themselves. Seniority is ordinarily a matter of contract: if you buy one of a series of totally fungible publicly traded bonds, you generally expect to be treated pari passu with the rest of those publicly traded bonds.
Ordinarily! Read more »