Roadmap for the Coming Greek Default

John Hussman lays out policy choices ahead; warns of potential losses to U.S. money market investors

Greeks in Athens protesting austerity measures earlier this year. (Photo: AP) Greeks in Athens protesting austerity measures earlier this year. (Photo: AP)

An acclaimed fund manager and vocal critic of global monetary authorities on Monday laid out a roadmap for what he regards as the certainty of a Greek sovereign default.

In his weekly market commentary, John Hussman, manager of the eponymous mutual fund company, says the history of sovereign defaults in Argentina, Uruguay, Russia and other countries provides a clear outline of “the financial crisis that appears about to unfold, and the associated choices involved.”

Hussman, a Ph.D who taught international finance before turning to professional money management, says what is unfolding in Greece fits the signature of past defaults: namely, “a sustained rise in yields, coupled with official statements about the ‘impossibility’ of default, multiple bailout efforts that quickly fail, culminating in a vertical spike in yields.” Hussman’s charts comparing Argentine bond yields in 2001 with Greek debt today exhibit the same stark verticality, with the yield on the Greek one-year bond more than tripling in the past month to as high as 130% last week.

Another commonality between Greece and Argentina is that both denominated debt in currencies that they could not print themselves.

So while another bailout could give extend Greek solvency for a few more months, the Hussman Funds manager argues that an eventual default cannot be avoided at a juncture when Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio is approaching 180%—a debt burden he says would be impossible to sustain “even if interest rates in Greece were only a few percent.”

Moreover, Hussman says a further bailout will only aggravate the situation for both Greece and investors in Greek debt. Because bailout funds are conditioned on austerity measures that produce further economic weakness and revenue shortfalls, such a policy will likely produce more misery and rioting in Greece while pushing Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio higher and the recovery rate for investors lower. A better approach would be to “provide the funds to a post-default Greece, or to use them to recapitalize the banking system after losses that now appear inevitable.”

Hussman sees three critical policy responses in the wake of a Greek default. The most immediate priority will be to prevent further contagion, and this can be done by shoring up Italian and Spanish debt. Not just the European Central Bank, but the Fed, too, under the authority of Section 14 of the Federal Reserve Act should purchase Italian and Spanish bonds since, unlike the case of Greece, it is not too late to prevent their default. “The key to stopping a contagion is to delineate which countries absolutely belong behind the firewall, rather than behaving as if all of them do,” Hussman says.

The second priority is to preserve the euro by removing unstable members from the monetary union. “The best chance for a durable currency is to restrict its membership to countries with similar macroeconomic characteristics that are actually capable of following a very uniform budget discipline,” Hussman says.

The third policy priority is to shore up the banking system and Hussman’s solution is to let bank shareholders take losses. “Investors and institutions that voluntarily accept risk in order to reach for extra yield should be prepared to suffer the losses if those investments fail.”

Hussman added a warning for U.S. investors in large prime money market funds that remain heavily invested in European bank debt: “It is unclear what level of subordination these debt obligations take, but we can expect that in the event of a Greek default, this concentrated ownership of European bank debt by U.S. money market funds will be less than ideal for investor confidence.”

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