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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Contagion Beyond the Headlines: Portugal and Eastern Europe

The E.U. states of Greece and Italy were grabbing headlines during the first two weeks of November 2011, given the dramatic resignations of Papandreou and Berlusconi. The only other state to get some attention was France. The Wall Street Journal noted on November 12th that concerns had been quietly building about France. According to the paper,“French bond yields rose to four-month highs, one day after Standard & Poor's Ratings Services erroneously issued a message saying it had cut France's triple-A credit rating. The yield on France's benchmark 10-year bond climbed 0.02 percentage point to 3.46%. That was 1.66 percentage points over yields on comparable German government bonds. France now has the highest government bond yields among its triple-A-rated peers in the region.” However, it seems overly dramatic to say that a .02 percent increase evinces a climb. Moreover, 3.46% is well under 7 percent, which is the level that was presumed at the time to signify the need for a bailout. Relative to the changes in the Italian yield, those of the French bonds could be viewed as relatively moderate, The French yield was still closer to that of Germany. Although not a red herring, the concern over France masked some real sleepers that were poised to take a hit in 2012. 

Eclipsed by the headlines, Portugal’s expected GDP for 2012 was revised downward by the E.U.’s executive branch in November from the May estimates of around -1.8% to -3% with an expected unemployment rate of nearly 14 percent. The 2011 numbers were also revised downward, from about -1.9% to around -2.1 percent. Meanwhile, Portugal’s semi-sovereign 10-year bond yield was at just over 12 percent, well over Italy’s “point of no return” rate of 7.5 percent, which was hit for a day during the second week of November. With an expected contraction of 3% in 2012 and a 12% yield in November of 2011, Portugal could be expected to face stronger head-winds in being able to make its interest payments in 2012. I suspect that the press had become so captivated with the circus of personalities in Greece and Italy that the iceberg lying in front of Portugal was simply not seen.

Besides Portugal, some of the states in Eastern Europe faced icebergs of their own—though not necessarily of their own making. These too were receiving too little press coverage in November of 2011. Specifically, the state leaders of the “euro zone” had decided in October to give the “zone’s” major banks until the following summer to raise their capital reserves. With that amount of time, the banks could avoid issuing new stock (which would dilute the holdings of their existing stockholders) and get the added reserves together by cutting back on lending to Eastern E.U. state governments instead. Morgan Stanley figures that Poland, Romania, and Hungary are most vulnerable to a loss of “euro zone” bank lending. Roughly 1 trillion euros of “euro zone” bank assets were in Eastern Europe at the time of the change in governments in Greece and Italy. Hungary’s exposure was the largest, with loans held by the banks amounting to about 37% of GDP. According to the Wall Street Journal, any hit to the E.U.’s eastern states, whose economic growth had been powered the global recovery, would only worsen the E.U.’s economic outlook and its ability to service its debts. That is to say, enabling the “euro zone” banks to raise additional reserve capital by reducing lending rather than raising equity may have been in the banks’ interest, but choking the eastern states could already in November be expected to make it more difficult for Greece, Italy, and Portugal to service their respective debts from reduced economic output in 2012. 

It would have been wiser on the journalists’ part to put France in perspective and take a look at Portugal and Eastern Europe than to have fixated so much on the plights of Papandreou and Berlusconi as they struggled to maintain power only to ultimately lose it.

Matthew Dalton, “Europe Slashes Its Growth Forecast,” The Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204224604577029442286713940.html

Kelly Evans, “Eastern Europe Vulnerable in Debt Crisis,” The Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203537304577030422025545822.html

Neelabh Chaturvedi, Stelios Bouras, and Liam Moloney, “Europe Pulls Back From Brink,” The Wall Street Journal, November 12-13, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204358004577032401682551744.html?mod=googlenews_wsj