Trichet Bonds To Resolve the European Sovereign Debt Problem
We propose the creation of “Trichet Bonds” as a comprehensive solution to the current sovereign debt crisis in the EU area. “Trichet Bonds,” to be named after the ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet, will be similar to “Brady Bonds” that resolved the Latin American debt crisis in the late 1980s and were named after the then Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady. Like the Brady Bonds, Trichet Bonds will be new long-duration bonds issued by countries in the EU area that will be collateralized by zero-coupon bonds of the same duration issued by the ECB. The zero-coupon bonds will be sold by the ECB to the countries issuing Trichet Bonds, which will be offered in exchange for outstanding sovereign debt of the countries. The exchange is offered at market value, so current debt holders will experience a “haircut” from par value, and thus the exchange does not involve a “bailout.” However, present holders of sovereign debt will be exchanging low quality bonds with limited liquidity, for higher quality bonds with greater liquidity. Debt holders not accepting the exchange will be at risk of a forced restructuring at a later date at terms less favorable. The effect of the exchange offer, if a threshold of approximately 70% approve it, is to replace old debt with a lesser amount of new debt with longer maturities. The creation of Trichet bonds will result in various advantages both in comparison to the present unstable situation and other proposed solutions. First, the long duration of Trichet bonds will eliminate the immediate crisis caused by short term expiration of significant amounts of debt which is looming over Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and possibly other EU countries. Second, the guarantee of the principal with the zero-coupon ECD bond collateral increases the quality of the Trichet Bonds compared to existing sovereign debt. Third, the market for the new Trichet Bonds will be liquid and likely to trade at appreciating prices as refinancing (roll-over) risk is reduced and time is allowed for economic reforms by the issuing countries (a condition of the ECB) to take effect. In addition, the exchange of existing sovereign debt for Trichet bonds will force many European banks holding the sovereign debt to take the write-offs required, thus making their own balance sheets more transparent. Many European banks are thought to have large holdings of sovereign debt from the “peripheral” countries that have not been marked-to-market, and thus represent sizeable potential losses for the banks when the sovereign debt is ultimately restructured, as we believe it must be over the next few years. Most of the sovereign bank debt likely to be exchanged, however, is held by larger German, French and Swiss banks with the capability (if not necessarily the desire) to take the write-offs required. The overhang of such future losses affects the entire European banking system at a time when it too is being restructured. The ECB, and the European central banks need to identify those banks that are impaired by excessive sovereign holdings and assist them in recapitalization – the sooner the better – but they should also push the larger, stronger banks to accept the exchange offers in the interest of bank transparency and restructuring as well as in resolving the sovereign debt problem. Clearly the two problems – sovereign debt and bank restructuring – are connected. The issuance of Trichet Bonds, will help to resolve both problems by recognizing market realities and offering an easier way out than through a forced, cram-down restructuring once the ailing sovereigns exhaust their ability to repay the existing debt. There are significant advantages to Trichet bonds over other discussed solutions to the sovereign debt problem. One such proposed solution is the issuance of “Euro Bonds” guaranteed by the Eurozone countries or the EU itself for the purpose of redeeming sovereign bonds by market purchases, or by lending the proceeds to the countries involved for them to acquire their debt. Apart from the considerable political obstacles to such a program, the undertaking actually makes it less likely that existing self-interested debt-holders will sell in the market. The implication of the program is that either through market interventions that push prices up, or by the assumption that the program will continue to enable the debt to be retired at par on maturity, debt-holders won’t sell unless the price is pushed high enough to constitute a bailout. The ECB’s current efforts to support the prices of distressed sovereign bonds is currently having this effect, which transfers some, if not all of the cost of resolving the problem to European taxpayers, where increasingly it is resented. The alternative approach, that has only been discussed by market participants, is for a Russian or Argentine solution in which the debt-holders are made a take-it-or-leave-it offer to exchange outstanding debt for new, generally illiquid bonds at an arbitrary price that discourages future investment by the market. Such an approach is understood by the sovereign debt market to constitute a de facto default. Such a default would likely have serious adverse consequences for the Euro and the EU, and may be less likely that a bailout of some kind. The great advantage of Trichet Bonds is that they avoid both bailouts and defaults.
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