Systemic ain’t what it used to be

I remember that in the first days after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, many believed that the collateral damage would not be terrible. I distinctly recall asset managers who were still eager to discuss idiosyncratic factors in some emerging markets. Not that I was so much smarter back then – after all, I did not send an email entitled “SELL EVERYTHING”. Of course shortly afterwards came an avalanche and dominoes started falling. All of a sudden everything appeared systemic, even things you wouldn’t normally care about.

Just to give you a few examples from my turf:

  • Iceland was relevant because of huge assets of local banks outside of the country (aka Icesaave);
  • Hungary (and CEE in general) was key for survival of Austrian and Italian banks;
  • Latvia threatened the stability of the banking system in Sweden;
  • Ukraine was a big risk for French banks;
  • The Middle East… well, it’s always considered to be a tail risk anyway.

One could extend this list quite a bit.

Considering the fragility of the financial system back then, any of those factors could’ve spiralled out of control. Therefore we had various programmes, such as the Vienna Initiative which were aimed at ring fencing potential fallout. When that initial phase of panic ended (with the London Summit) we had a brief period of calmness followed by the mighty Eurocrisis.

This one has been very similar to the initial “Lehman” stage. First came Greece, which initially was considered to be not that relevant. That was the case until roundabout the PSI Summit of 2011, which – perhaps inadvertently – wreaked havoc in the system. There was also Ireland with its “bad bank” ideas and the Iberia with all sorts of problems. And then, again, everything became systemic and potentially fatal. The culmination of it all was in my opinion when a) the market went after Italy and b) people wanted the Bund to start trading with a credit premium (search Bloomberg headlines towards the end of 2011 if you want to see that actually was the case).

Like with the Lehman, many people missed the Eurocrisis trade and began making up for that by creating more or less far-fetched implications. I described this mechanism in one of my previous posts about Slovenia. But does anyone really care about Greece or Ireland anymore? I know there’s punting going through in GGBs and some when-in-trouble-double funds made a killing buying Irish bonds but in terms of global significance this is barely relevant. Similarly, we shouldn’t really care about Cyprus, although some people are trying to persuade us it’s yet another reason to buy gold bitcoins and hide.

In this vein, I was actually pretty impressed with recent comments from Jeroen Dijsselbloem. He is right and he knows he can take a bit of a gamble by speaking his mind: not everything is systemic. And if something is then, well, we have the Draghi Doctrine.

Granted, Europe is pretty screwed economically and this won’t change anytime soon but this is a completely different set of issues than forecasting the total annihilation of the financial system. The two most important measures of stress, i.e. the cross-currency basis between EUR and USD as well as the BOR-OIS spread are telling us that we should change the way of looking at European affairs. And maybe this is the answer to a tweet from Joe Weisenthal asking why on Earth is the euro so stable. The euro has plenty of reasons to fall and I have been suggesting short EUR/EM positions lately but systemic just ain’t what it used to be.

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The truth about € in Poland, Mr. Krugman

As a big fan of IS/LM, I have always admired Paul Krugman. He obviously knows his stuff but more importantly he has held his stance throughout the crisis and has done it in a very convincing way. This will definitely be remembered.
However, I sometimes have issues with what he says and these issues are proportional to the distance between him and the subject in question. While his views on Iceland were pretty much in line with what I think, I’ve been under the impression that he oversimplified things by conveniently ignoring the fact that there is a lot of cash trapped there, which will remain a big problem for many years to come. But this is nothing compared to what in my view is a completely misguided and superficial analysis of the Baltics. The fundamental difference between what he says and what I think is that for me just because a country that used to run significant excesses before the crisis has not returned to the previous level of output is by no means a proof of a failure of local policies. I would argue that a lot of pre-crisis GDP was, in effect, phantom and should not be treated as a benchmark. Additionally, countries like Lithuania are an example that internal devaluation can work well, which you can see looking at a rapid growth in productivity in recent years. And no, I don’t care that a lot of that has happened through reductions in employment. Not because I’m a heartless liberal but because a lot of the pre-crisis employment should not have happened in the first place. The same situation could be observed in Latvia and yet prof. Krugman keeps waving the GDP chart saying how ridiculous the policies have been.
But I wasn’t going to write about the Baltics. Today I read Paul Krugman’s latest post entitled Poland Is Not Yet Lost. The mention of Latvia aside, there is nothing in this post that would be factually incorrect – Poland did have a “nice” global recession and the zloty was an efficient corrective mechanism in 2009 and after.
However, the problem with his post is that it discusses an absolutely irrelevant issue of Poland joining the EMU. Sure, the Polish authorities have been quite vocal mentioning that in recent months but in my strong opinion it has nothing to do with the actual intention.
What’s the reason then? Polish bonds. After a spectacular rally in 2012, yields on POLGBs reached record low levels and the curve flattened dramatically as the NBP stayed way behind the curve. At the same time, standard valuation metrices like eg asset swaps or carry have become extremely tight. To the point that without assuming a paradigm shift or without classifying Poland as a safe haven it was difficult to justify further strong purchases. “Expensive” was the word most commonly used at the turn of the year. The Finance Ministry, which by the way holds a Ph.D. in public relations, realised that too and was frantically looking for a way to portray POLGBs as “still attractive”. And they quickly found one, ie the spread to Bund, which is hovering above 200bp. But in order for people to start looking at this spread they had to give them a reason. Joining the EMU was one. And believe me, this has been quite successful judging by how many requests I get about this spread these days.
Talk is cheap and Poland knows about it so if saying that eventually the zloty will be converted into € can bring us some flows then why not? Especially that there hasn’t been any commitment regarding the date or no indication on how on Earth Poland will meet the Maastricht criteria. But I guess this is a much simpler strategy of communication than trying to explain how the budget will cope with the first drop in consumption in almost 20 years or what does it mean that the budget deficit is already at 60% of the full-year plan after only two months. I guess it’s good there’s Hungary (and now Slovenia) next door who will always attract eager sellers, eh?
But coming back to prof. Krugman, I realise that my credentials are nowhere near his. Heck, I’m not even writing this under my own name. Still, I think in cases like Latvia or Poland, he lets his ideology run before the analysis of what actually is going on.

But you start to follow the money…

Attention, there are three words generally considered to be offensive used in the following post.

You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you

– Det. Lester Freamon

This is a pretty famous quote from The Wire that’s been echoing in my head since last weekend, i.e. after the Cyprus crisis grabbed all the headlines. But unfortunately, unlike in the case of Detective Freamon, it wasn’t because I admired the meticulous and hard work people have been putting into trying to figure out the broad consequences.

Sure, the blogosphere’s reaction last weekend was marvelous and in my opinion helped to stabilise markets this week, but alas it’s not really an event in the eurozone if you can’t draw some explosive (and most of the time daft) parallels. Before we get to those I’d like to say a few words about origins of such a situation.

Haircut of depositors in Cyprus took the market by surprise. And by market I mean investors and traders but also the caste of research professionals whose job is to… well… try and forecast such events. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with being caught off guard from time to time and it’s the reaction to such a surprise that matters. The natural instinct of people who had not predicted what happened in Cyprus is to play it down and suggest to fade any adverse market reaction. The twisted logic here is “had it really been so important, I would’ve surely seen it coming and since I didn’t then it must be unimportant“. I’m sure there’s a name for such a behaviour in psychology but I can’t be bothered to search. In my opinion, this is the most common reaction.

If this first – let’s call it – line of defense fails and the person in question finally acknowledges that the surprising event could turn out to be quite important then another mechanism kicks in: they try and look for potential spillovers. The thinking is more or less that “ok, I may have dropped the ball here but have a look at those cascade effects that the market is missing“. I have been quite appalled to see that happening throughout the most of this week.

It usually starts with some pretty straightforward conclusions. In the case of Cyprus, people began assuming that we will inevitably have a run on the island’s banks and that it could lead to similar developments in Portugal, Spain, Italy or even Ireland. Right, because that’s what the Irish people do…

The next step in this “following the money” process was to figure out whose deposits will be cut in Cyprus. The answer to that seems to be “Russian” (although I would caution against making such a generalisation). This would look something like this…

You guys, let’s try and see how this affects Russia. Oh, here’s one: VTB is one of the most important Russian banks and it also has a subsidiary in Cyprus. Sell, Mortimer, sell! What? VTB bonds have sold off? Well then why don’t we sell bonds issued by VEB. It’s a big state-owned bank and while it has really nothing to do with Cyprus, there’s only a one letter difference to VTB so it’ll do. Oh, and did I just say it’s state owned? Mate, where’s your bid in 50m Russia30s?

Let’s move on. Cyprus is a small, country with problems in the banking system. Those problems partly stem from the immense inflow of dirty money in the past. After the Cypriot financial system reopens whatever is left of it will inevitably flee. What if it goes to Latvia, which is already a popular short-break destination for the Russians and which will soon enter the eurozone itself? (…unfortunately the person explaining to me what would happen next lost me completely and so I can’t follow this particular money trail to the end). By the way, the Latvian authorities had to start swearing that they wouldn’t end up like Cyprus. There’s no smoke without fire, anyone?

And finally, my very recent favourite…

There must be a small country in the eurozone, which has some problems with its banks and which we could sell. Hang on, what’s this little thing east of Italy that no one really knows about but occasionally makes some noises in the media? Slovenia! OMG, this is so exciting! Banks in Slovenia have NPLs reaching 20%? Some of them did not meet the ECB stress tests? The government recently collapsed and there’s a risk of an early election? I guess we’ve found a retirement trade. And don’t bother me with details that assets of the Slovenian banking system are only around 135% to GDP or that the total government financing needs for this year are projected by the IMF at 7.7% of GDP (slightly below Germany, Austria or Finland). Who cares that if the IMF’s forecasts are to be believed then Slovenia will meet both fiscal Maastricht criteria next year as it still has debt to GDP below 60%. And also, I’ve never believed in this cyclically-adjusted primary surplus mumbo jumbo…

Right, and when you’re done selling Slovenia, maybe we should look into Slovakia – there’s gotta be some connection!

I have started with a quote by Lester Freamon and I will end with one. Fifth series, episode three (entitled “Not for attribution”):

Shit like this actually goes through your fucking brain?