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I've no idea what proportion of the stock of distressed sovereign bonds that represents... any ballpark numbers around?

So :
the ECB claims to be buying up these junk bonds because the market is dysfunctional, i.e. is improperly pricing in the risk of defaults which ALL serious people know to be impossible (which is why they are booked without impairment, as "hold to maturity" zero-risk securities!)

If only. The ECB has given no sign that it believes in market failure, and it has not engaged in market-making of last resort. On why people book bonds without impairment, I can only say accounting conventions are bunk and one of the sources of the current crisis.
therefore the price of these bonds would be MUCH lower, and the yields higher, if the ECB did not intervene,
No, the ECB has made no effort to support prices.
I want to understand whether the ECB is buying these bonds directly from the banks, or whether speculators bought the bonds from the banks, then took fright and sold on to the ECB (in the aggregate) : i.e. are the speculators getting a haircut too?
These are open market operations. They buy them from anyone willing to sell to them. I suspect only banks holding the bonds in their marked-to-market "trading book" would have sold. But the "trading book" puts them in the "speculator" category.
How does default insurance correlate to bond ownership? Is it necessary to own bonds in order to purchase insurance? Are the speculators buying insurance when they buy bonds?
CDS is explained to the public as insurance but it isn't. In the US, famously, it was not regulated as insurance (which would have required people to own the bond in order to buy it - or at least it would have made payout of the CDS conditional on presenting the defaulted bond) in order to allow the market to be more liquid and the CDS volume to be unconstrained. Some people speculate purely on CDS (basically, on the CDS spread noise) without touching the bonds at all.
If the bulk of Greek debt is now no longer held by banks, but by speculators who hold insurance, then when the price drops, their interest is best served  by default, right? Or by full payment at term without rollover, but unserious people like these speculators know that this is impossible.
The bulk of Greek debt is, as ever, held by Greek banks for their position-making. Basically, banks can pad their balance sheets with government bonds in the absence of other assets. It is in this sense that JakeS says that sovereign bonds are not debt instruments but monetary policy instruments
I've probably got hold of the wrong end of a stick that may not even exist; but I'm trying to follow the money here. And you people are writing my book for me.
You're grasping at straws with your "follow the money".

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 04:46:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Migeru:
You're grasping at straws with your "follow the money".

Guilty as charged...

I'm still looking for a tangible villain. Given the mechanical inevitability of default for Greece (barring a deus-ex-machina from the ECB, which I think we can agree is not on the cards), the smart money is presumably gaming the ECB's stupidity for all it's worth.

The most obvious way of doing this is by buying CDS.

Therefore, anyone taking a major bet on Greek default, through a CDS position, may wish to influence outcomes by blocking off all alternatives to full payment (impossible) or default (jackpot).

Ratings agencies which declare "anything which is different from full payment (e.g. voluntary rollover) is equivalent to default" would seem to fit with such a strategy.

The head of a ratings agency who secretly held a massive CDS position might make a satisfying villain.

Just thinking out loud here.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 05:23:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Then you have to ask yourself who the sellers of the CDS are.

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 05:25:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
in a default scenario. If I have understood correctly, they are US banks, who must somehow trust implicitly that the ECB will not allow default. Or that the US government or Fed will not allow the ECB to allow default?

My head hurts.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 06:53:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
They are not the suckers. They are collecting CDS premia (16% annual rate on Greek CDS right now) without being capitalised for paying out and everyone is doing their best that there isn't a default so they don't have to pay.

If you sell insurance with no intention of paying out, is that not fraudulent?

Economics is politics by other means

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 07:09:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
so if they have any overt or covert influence to exercise over events in my ficticious world, it will be working against the interests of my hypothetical speculator/credit rater. They would NOT want "voluntary" bond rollover to trigger a credit event.

This is all a matter of parasitical side-bets on the main events of Euro liquidity/solvency matters, but the stakes are high.

It could all get quite violent.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 09:08:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I keep forgetting you're not trying to figure out what's going on but you're actually actively looking for a pulp fiction villain so you can write a crime novel.

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 09:21:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
would be nice, but way beyond my intellectual capacity.

Writing a crime novel is easy, comparatively speaking. But I would prefer that it were plausible and didactic in nature.

It's a variation on the old "insure and burn" scam. No, it's actually more like match-fixing : placing bets on outcomes, and reducing the uncertainties.

I would prefer if I could identify actors who stand to gain from the Euro crisis itself, rather than CDS side-bets, and who might therefore wish to influence outcomes. But I haven't identified anyone yet : it looks like a lose-lose-lose situation, a seriously negative-sum game.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 11:59:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The you need to up your stakes and, instead of writing a pulp crime novel, writing a Twilight of Civilization epic tragedy.

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 12:40:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Playing to my strengths.

Götterdammerüng, and lots of humping among the ruins.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 01:12:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Götterdämmerung :-)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 01:21:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I like the way Dammerüng sounds :D

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 03:42:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I would prefer if I could identify actors who stand to gain from the Euro crisis itself, rather than CDS side-bets, and who might therefore wish to influence outcomes. But I haven't identified anyone yet : it looks like a lose-lose-lose situation, a seriously negative-sum game.

In terms of money? Certainly.

In terms of goods and resources? Absolutely.

In terms of power? No. Power over others is a zero-sum game.

But of course this is a case where reality is unrealistic. It is hard to make a character in a book motivated by power over other people without having him become a caricature sociopath.

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 03:24:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Migeru:

If you sell insurance with no intention of paying out, is that not fraudulent?

That is the advantage for the buyer of having insurance regulated. But since this is not insurance, I guess pretending to insure would be the correct name of the service.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES!

by A swedish kind of death on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 11:24:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, the CDS buyers are also only pretending to buy insurance since
the whole point of CDS swaps was to enable you to treat risky junk as though they were AAA investments and relieve you of the obnoxious reserve requirements


Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 11:49:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Communism: The workers pretend to work and the state pretends to pay them.

Capitalism: CDS buyers pretend to buy insurance and CDS sellers pretend to sell it.

Hm, not as catchy.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES!

by A swedish kind of death on Thu Jun 16th, 2011 at 04:16:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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