THE BLOG
01/22/2012 10:42 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2012

Politicians Seeking Upper Hand Over Hedge Funds in Greek Bailout

Negotiations to avert a default by Greece continue to move haltingly. The closer the parties get to a resolution--presumably replacing existing short-term debt with new, long-term bonds with a reduced coupon--the clearer it is becoming that a solution may require 100% participation of bondholders while sustaining the illusion of "voluntary" investor participation.

The holders of the Greek debt range from European banks to hedge funds. The European banks--for decades among the titans of the world financial system and the envy of U.S. banks--have been a shadow of their former selves since 2008. Many were essentially insolvent in the wake of the 2008 collapse, and only survived through a combination of sovereign guarantees, public injections of capital and actions by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank.

Those banks are the largest holders of Euro-denominated sovereign debt of Eurozone members, in large part because they viewed that debt as carrying an implied guaranty--much as U.S. banks viewed the mortgage-backed securities that were their undoing--and because those bonds were eligible collateral for their borrowing from the European Central Bank. In a larger sense, however, those purchases reflected the extent to which the banks have become an integrated part of the public policy apparatus of the new Europe, where the boundaries between the public and private sectors have becoming increasingly blurred.

Hedge funds, on the other hand, live with no such ambiguity. Hedge fund buyers of Greek bonds are in it for financial gain. If a fund trader buys a medium-term Greek bond, they do so in anticipation of being able to sell that bond in the future at a higher price or in the extreme case holding the bond until it matures at 100% of its par value. To effectively protect against downside risk, they might concurrently enter into a credit default swap that would pay off in the event Greece were to default on its payment obligation. Ideally, a well-structured trade provides an upside to the hedge fund regardless of the outcome for Greece. Heads they win, tails they win, and only the math would tell you which way they would win more.

But in the new world order, things are not so simple. There are many participants involved, and each has their own set of metrics for a successful outcome of the Greece workout. The proposed resolution would provide for a swap of currently outstanding Greece bonds for new bonds that would pay out over a longer term, at lower rates. In theory participation is voluntary, but clearly some are kicking and screaming as they seem to be voluntarily coming to the table.

For the banks, the proposed swap is not such a bad outcome. First, because their holdings are of both short and long-term bonds, and based on the complex portfolio accounting, what they lose on swapping their short-term bonds in the deal, they make up in part at the long end. Second, as part of the complex public-private Euro-policy apparatus they have been told by their new political masters to play ball. But finally, and of critical importance, the European banks want to avoid an official default--or "credit event" as defined by ISDA, the International Swap Dealers Association--on Greek debt, as those banks are the primary providers of the credit default swap insurance purchased by the hedge fund community, and they want very much not to have to pay out on those derivative contracts.

For Greece, the objective is clearly to survive the restructuring with a balance sheet that causes as little domestic pain as possible, and to retain access to new borrowing going forward. To any rational observer, this outcome seems counter-productive, as it is hard to imagine that such continued market access for new borrowing will not lead all of the parties back to the table for a new workout down the road. Same script, another year.

For the hedge funds, this may be, to use that paternalistic cliché--a teachable moment. The banks seem to be getting out of the deal what they need--putting off a hit on their capital and avoiding a credit event under their credit default swap exposure. For its part, Greece seems to have garnered increasing leverage the longer the negotiations drag on, at least in part through its threat to recast the terms of the bonds. The bonds were sold under Greek law, and someone seemed to have realized that the Greek parliament could have the power to unilaterally change the terms of the outstanding obligations. It is hard to fathom that such an action would be legal, but no doubt Greek legislators would be only too eager to vote on the matter. It is the hedge funds that seem to have ignored the extent to which rules in the financial markets are increasingly subject to political intervention, and they may find themselves to be the odd man out.

The deal on the table is evidence of the growing interplay between the financial markets and political forces. Like the GM bondholders, the hedge funds are finding themselves subject to massive political and coercive pressures to consent to a workout that takes away both the upside that they thought they owned and the downside protection that was their fallback. In the most ironic of twists, hedge fund managers have threatened to sue in the European Court of Human Rights to prevent the usurpation of their economic rights through the proposed "voluntary" restructuring. Perhaps they are right on the merits, but it may be that trading and making a profit on the life and death of nations is not going to be as easy as it once seemed.

Early on, the new, dynamic interaction between the private financial markets and the political world was evident in the enormous pressure felt by Greek politicians to vote to cut public sector salaries, pensions and services. The worm seems to have turned, and now it appears that the Greek politicians are not as dumb as they seemed, nor the hedge fund traders as smart as they thought.