Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Greek Contagion Spreading Fast

Greek Contagion Spreading Fast

Euro-zone politicians may be fiddling while Rome burns. Tuesday's meeting of finance ministers brought no progress on how to address Greece's funding problems and avoid setting off a financial crisis. But conditions in European markets are deteriorating. The main risk from Greece has always been contagion, and that process is already under way.
Most directly, prices of Portuguese and Irish bonds have fallen sharply, with 10-year yields rising above 11% and the cost of insuring their debt at record levels. The gap between Spanish and German 10-year bond yields is at its widest since January. The market is effectively giving no credit for any reforms or budget policies set out in the past six months.
The next link in the chain, the banking system, has been affected. In Spain, progress by banks on regaining market access has gone into reverse: Average borrowing from the European Central Bank jumped to €53 billion ($76.32 billion) in May from €42 billion in April.
Meanwhile, the contagion into core banks may be being underestimated by investors. Moody's on Tuesday said it could downgrade France's BNP Paribas, Société Générale and Crédit Agricole due to their holdings of Greek debt, and the ratings firm is looking at whether other banks could face similar risks.
Disturbingly, the worries have now reached non-financial companies, which have been virtually bulletproof this year. Investment-grade bond issuance has come to a near-standstill. The yield premium on Portugal Telecom's February 2016 euro bond over German Bunds has widened a stunning 2.3 percentage points in the last two weeks, data from Société Générale show. Italian and Spanish credits are under pressure too. The credit market now starts by pricing government risk and then works back to price debt from financials and companies, one investor says: Greece is a destabilizing influence at the center of the market's deliberations.
When German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble last week proposed a seven-year maturity extension for Greek bondholders, setting up the current standoff with the ECB, he suggested there was a chance to minimize the negative impact on financial markets. That was always an optimistic hope. The reality is that markets are starting to wake up to the risks of a Greek debt restructuring. Europe's politicians need to act fast to stem the tide.
Write to Richard Barley at richard.barley@dowjones.com

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