OK, Here's Where All The Big Issues Stand In Europe Right Now

fixing watch close up

Photo: Alan Cleaver on Flickr

EU leaders made progress in their six-day marathon of meetings to decide on plans to fix the eurozone.But despite initial market jubilation it looks like a permanent solution remains far off. Plans to leverage the eurozone rescue fund — the European Financial Stability Facility — are still in the works, as are tangible changes to the governance of the European economic and monetary union.

Lots of work is still in progress. Here’s the latest on all the big issues Europe is facing right now.

Voluntary private sector involvement in the credit swap

An agreement on the losses private investors would take on Greek bonds appeared to be the ultimate issue that dragged out the EU summit on Wednesday.

Ultimately, eurozone leaders and Charles Dallara, the managing director of the Institute of International Finance and representative of the banks at the negotiations, finally struck a deal on 50% 'voluntary' haircuts on Greek bonds.

The size of these write downs could cripple the banking sector despite bank recapitalization, which has already suffered significant stress with the current writedowns (remember Dexia?). On the other hand, bigger haircuts seem like the only way to make Greek debt sustainable.

Voluntary private sector involvement in the credit swap

Dallara and EU leaders may have reached an agreement about 50% haircuts on Greek debt, but that doesn't mean bondholders are going to go for it voluntarily.

Bondholders must participate voluntarily to avoid provoking a credit event, in which credit default swap insurance against Greek debt gets paid out.

The deal reportedly includes lots of attractive 'sweeteners' for banks, however considering that at maximum 85% of bondholders showed interest in a 21% haircut, we're sceptical that nearly as many are going to voluntarily take losses of nearly double.

The ramifications of a credit event could be disastrous. The size of the CDS market is a bit of an unknown, so the shocks caused by CDS payouts could be far-reaching and incredibly damaging.

On the other hand, Citi's Willem Buiter argues that a credit event caused by coercion might not actually be such a bad thing. The size of the Greek sovereign CDS market is small and better regulations are in place now to control contagion than were in the Lehman days.

This is likely to become the biggest topic of conversation in the coming weeks.

Bank recapitalizations

News from the European Banking Authority surfaced during the summit, alleging that banks will probably need about €106 billion ($147 billion) in capital to meet a new 9% core capital requirement. They'll have 8 months to meet this goal.

But they'll probably receive less funding than this number implies from national authorities and the EFSF. Banks will be asked to seek funding on their own before turning to national governments for capital. Only if governments are incapable of meeting these capital needs on their own will banks receive funding from the EFSF.

There are problems with this plan, however.

The size of these recapitalizations will probably still be too small to calm markets. Further, it will bar fragile banks in core European countries like France from EFSF funds, placing more stress on the French government -- and thus France's credit rating.

Finally, there is some concern that countries like Italy and Spain will wage a campaign to taint the 9% capital requirements and allow banks to use riskier, hybrid capital to meet the agreed-upon core ratio.

Leveraging the EFSF—the European rescue fund

EU leaders are considering two plans to leverage the European Financial Stability Facility up to €1 trillion ($1.4 trillion). It will probably be able to use both plans simultaneously:

Guaranteeing first losses on sovereign bonds:

- This plan would likely insure 20-30% of bondholders losses on sovereign debt holdings, with the aim of inducing them to purchase bonds of struggling sovereigns like Italy and Spain.

- We're sceptical that such a plan would work. 20-30% guarantees will probably be too insignificant to convince investors to continue purchasing bonds.

Using an SPIV funded by the IMF and private investors:

- An SPIV would be used to induce investors like the IMF and China to purchase sovereign bonds on the primary and secondary markets. The IMF could also be included in this plan.

- This idea appears similar to a rumour sparked by a CNBC report in September.

- This SPIV will probably take weeks to create, according to Reuters columnist Paul Taylor. Further, it essentially amounts to the rest of the world bailing out Europe, particularly if private investors aren't so keen on buying sovereign bonds. It would also likely require the IMF to boost its resources.

- However, an IMF backstop to the eurozone as a whole is an attractive proposition, as it implies that the fund will do what is necessary to support a euro rescue. The IMF can act more quickly than the EU and with much less fanfare.

New reforms from Italy

Italy is quickly joining Greece as the focus of European angst.

PM Silvio Berlusconi reiterated his commitment to reforms in a letter he sent to EU leaders at the summit Wednesday, and they seemed to believe his promise. However, whether or not he can deliver new austerity and growth programs that will stem the pressure on Italian borrowing remains to be seen.

At the same time, Berlusconi's coalition looks increasingly fragile, making reforms harder to push through the legislature.

The prognosis is grim for Italy, with $2.2 trillion in public debt and growth grinding to a halt.

Changes to EU governance

Clearly, changes need to be made in the eurozone to better manage and prevent crisis and public spending problems.

Herman van Rompuy told reporters after the big summit Sunday that euro area leaders made a LOT of progress on this issue. However, the progress made by EU leaders at their second summit Wednesday was disappointing -- while EU leaders spoke vaguely of changes, no tangible proposals were made.

In reality, we won't see major amendments to EU governance anytime soon. Merkel told reporters after the summit Wednesday that a final roadmap of treaty changes won't be decided upon until March 2012.

In addition to the political controversy such amendments will generate within EU states after those measures are agreed upon, non-euro countries might oppose measures that further distinguish them from euro area states.

Escalating conflict between EU states with and without the euro

Intensifying arguments between EU states that use the euro and those which do not comprised some of the biggest news to come out of the EU summit last weekend.

Of particular note was a choice statement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who told U.K. PM David Cameron, 'You have lost a good opportunity to shut up...We are sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro and now you want to interfere in our meetings.'

But it looks like euro and non-euro states might have made peace during their Wednesday summit. All 27 EU leaders agreed on the program to recapitalize European banks.

However, divisions could heat up once again as eurozone leaders debate changes to EU treaties that could change the relationship of states that use the euro. This is probably a long-term issue, however, as a final roadmap on those changes won't see publication until March 2012.

Chinese involvement in the European bailout

China is the new biggest wildcard in the eurozone crisis. While there have long been rumours about Chinese involvement in the bailout, this time that now looks more likely than ever.

This series of rumours started when EFSF head Klaus Regling suddenly flew to China. Then French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced at the summit on Wednesday that he would welcome Chinese interest in helping out. He spoke with Chinese Premier Hu Jintao today.

rumours are circulating that China could devote as much as €100 billion to the EFSF, in collaboration with the IMF.

We're not sure how far talks with China or the IMF for increased participation have progressed. This will no doubt be a major issue at the G20 meeting early next month.

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