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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Justice as Fairness: Writing Down Greek Debt

According to the Wall Street Journal, 80% of Greece’s private creditors agreed to “voluntarily” convert their Greek debt into debt of a bit less than half the face-value (plus a lower interest rate). With such a proportion having agreed to the swap without triggering credit default swap insurance payouts, Greece could get the E.U. to agree to force the remaining 20% to involuntary write-downs. That would trigger the credit default swaps, at least in theory.

Because any write down of Greek debt by other E.U. states or the E.U.’s central bank (equivalent to the Federal Reserve) would be tantamount to additional aid to Greece, the E.U.’s basic law would again need to be amended (which must be unanimous). So the E.U. (and the international IMF) exempted themselves even as they pushed for “voluntary” write downs by private debt-holders. This hardly seems fair. Moreover, any pressure from the E.U. could have been sufficient for the credit default swaps to be triggered. To be truly voluntary, the write downs would have to have come from the private bondholders themselves rather than from governmental pressure. Even so, that 80% agreed, it is only fair that the remaining 20% be forced to capitulate. Otherwise, holding out could be a strategic competitive advantage financially. Refusing to compromise while other similar parties do is unfair whether between private creditors or governments.

In my view, Greece should have secured the E.U.’s approval on instituting the collective bargaining statute in order to get all of the state’s private holders of Greek bonds to take a write down. It would have triggered the credit default swap insurance claims, so the bondholders might actually have preferred being forced even if more of their Greek debt was written off. Furthermore, E.U. officials should have subjected the E.U. states to join the private bondholders. At the time of the 80% voluntary agreement in 2012, Greek debt in 2020 was forecasted to be at 120% of Greece’s total economic activity. This is still quite high, particularly given the recessionary impact of the continued Greek austerity. Unfortunately, the (excessive) power of state officials at the E.U. level meant that a conflict of interest interfered with amending the E.U.’s basic law to permit the state governments and the ECB to take write downs.

In terms of ethical theory, one could apply John Rawls’ Theory of Justice here. In this theory, there is a veil of ignorance concerning where one will be in the system for which one is making rules. Not knowing whether one would represent a government or private bondholder, for example, one would not be likely to add the rule in which only the private bondholders write off their Greek bonds. Not knowing which E.U. state one would represent, one would not add a rule favoring Germany and France over Greece. Not knowing whether one is an official of the E.U. Commission or a member of a state legislature such as the Bundestag, one would not make a rule allowing the states to protect their interests at the expense of the E.U. Rawls adds that because of the veil, any rule would see to it that the position of the least well situated is improved. So it would not be the case that Germany could dictate to the E.U. or so successfully protect German interests at the expense of Greece. Indeed, the bias would be in seeing that the people least well off in the least well off state are not further downtrodden as a result of any proposed rule. This might be part of Rawls penchant for redistribution, however. At the very least, we could say that the rules enacted under justice as fairness would be in the interest of the system itself rather than any particular part thereof. In terms of the writing down of Greek debt, the E.U. could have been fairer in how it went about designing its rules. There was not exactly a veil of ignorance on the vested interests that were in a position to protect themselves at Greece’s expense.

Source:
Charles Forelle, Stelios Bouras, and Alkman Granitsas, “Greece Passes Key Debt Test,” The Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2012.