For months now, Greece has desperately been trying to persuade its private-sector creditors that it is in their interest to exchange their existing Greek bonds for longer-term securities and accept about a 50 percent loss as part of the bargain. The negotiations are known as the private sector involvement, or P.S.I.
A few months ago the deal looked doable, as the large European banks that held must of this debt, estimated to be around €200 billion, recognized that it was probably a better alternative than default, which could cost them everything. Moreover, the banks were sensitive to political pressure from their home countries, where they have a big stake in remaining on good terms with the government and key officials.
But as the talks have dragged on, many of these banks, especially big holders in France and Germany, have sold their holdings. Among the buyers have been hedge funds and other independent investors who are now questioning why they should accept a loss, known as a haircut, if, as it turns out, the deal remains voluntary in nature and Greece keeps paying interest on its debt.
And as the number of such hedge funds holding Greek debt has grown, so has their ability to forestall a restructuring agreement, thus bringing them closer to being able cash in on their high-stakes gambit.
From the Journal:
There are many potential pitfalls, each, in a way, leading to another pitfall-strewn path.
Ha! Also ha! on the Times's sort of strange description of what the hedge funds are up to, though what they're up to doesn't itself sound strange. If I were a hedge fund here is what I would do:
1. Not buy bonds and then later "question why I should accept a loss";
2. rather, buy bonds because I plan to get a gain;
3. specifically because I'm planning to be all "oh, man, I must have lost that consent solicitation in the mail, could you send it again" and otherwise generally stall on this voluntary offer until my bonds come due and are paid off with bailout money (maybe?);
4. or, alternatively, because I've got CDS against those bonds and have no intention whatsoever of voluntarily exchanging them and voiding my protection.
That or "stay the hell away from this situation." But, like, the above is at least a strategy. Now, if I were a French or German bank here is what I would do:
5. oh, wait, no, I might get some pressure from my regulators/government to play along with the "voluntary" exchange, plus there's some sort of critical-mass issue where if no one does the exchange then things get even worse;
6. hmm, that nice man from a hedge fund is looking to buy my position and he's willing to pay more than this voluntary exchange is offering;
7. hit that.
Amazingly (?) that seems to have been what the French and German banks are doing.
My favorite book about finance, besides the obviousones, is probably Nassim Taleb's juvenilia, back when he was all indie and awesome and hadn't sold out yet.* Here is a thing that he says pretty elegantly:
The most important notion in [he says "option hedging," but you can substitute life with little loss of information] is the contamination principle: ... It means roughly that if there is a possible spot in time and space capable of bringing a profit, then the areas surrounding it need to account for that effect.
So you can, like the Times, say "hedge funds the winners if Greek bailout arrives," and you'd be right. (You can also say "hedge funds the losers if Greek bailout doesn't arrive," and you'd maybe be right, though things like CDS and the fact that there's lots of losing to go around muddy the picture a bit.) But you can also notice that those hedge funds paid out a portion of their probabilistic winnings to sellers like French and German banks, who could probably use a little win right about now. The banks seem to have noticed that, since they hit the bid - and they seem to have thought that it was a better bid than what Greece and Brussels are sort-of-kind-of offering. Compare a maybe 75%+ NPV haircut on even the shortest bonds to this:
So, yes, the jerks - as I've called them, fondly - who don't intend to help out Greece in its time of need may get a nice payoff. Or they may get screwed. But the way they got into that position was by offering a better deal not to evil "hedge funds" but to - well, evil European banks, but still. The fact that the hedge funds stand to - maybe! - get a sort-of-kind-of-windfally-looking profit means that the banks have already done much better than they otherwise would have by the Greek debt exchange.
The banks and the hedge funds get this. A thing to maybe wonder about is the extent to which whoever is corralling the banks - Eurocrats, banking regulators, the IMF, the Institute for International Finance, etc. - also get it. (Probably a fairly large extent, right?) If I were negotiating the PSI on behalf of Greece, I would be pretty pissed if a bank came to me at the last minute and said "nah, I'm not gonna participate in this exchange, just ride it out and see if you default." But I'd be even more pissed if that bank avoided coming to me at all because by the time the last minute rolled around it had already sold to a hedge fund who doesn't care as much about my pissed-off-ness. I'd probably do what I could to make things difficult for that hedge fund. But I'd also think about extracting some pain from the bank.
Well, no, I wouldn't really, because more pain for European banks is the last thing anyone needs. But I'd think hard, now, about providing a currently credible expectation of pain to those banks. Because if on the one hand hedge funds are offering to take their Greek risk off their hands for a price that contemplates a better recovery than those banks could actually negotiate for - and on the other hand Greece/Brussels are offering them nothing to stay in the bonds and the negotiations other than harangues and continental pride - then that does not bode well for the pitfally path of pitfalls.
* This is an amazing book! Just as an aside, if you enjoy the ... maybe somewhat off-putting picture of Taleb's personality that you can get from some of his pop books, there are moments of bliss here. Try the first page of Dynamic Hedging: "I clambered up to my attic where, during 6 entire months, I spent 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, immersed in probability theory, numerical analysis, and mathematical statistics (at a Ph.D. level. Then I began to write this book." Thanks! It's really great though.