Thursday, September 30, 2010

Satyajit Das on the European Financial Stability Facility (”EFSF”)

In a guest post on Naked Capitalism, Satyajit Das critiques the European Financial Stability Facility (”EFSF”):

In order to finance member countries as needed, the EFSF will need to issue debt. The major rating agencies have awarded the fund the highest possible credit rating AAA.

The EFSF structure echoes the ill-fated Collateralised Debt Obligations (”CDOs”) and Structured Investment Vehicles (”SIV”). The Moody’s rating approach explicitly draws the analogy and uses CDO rating methodology in arriving at the rating.

The Euro 440 billion ($520 billion) rescue package establishes a special purpose vehicle (”SPV”), backed by individual guarantees provided by all 19-member countries. Significantly, the guarantees are not joint and several, reflecting the political necessity, especially for Germany, of avoiding joint liability. The risk that an individual guarantor fails to supply its share of funds is covered by a surplus “cushion”, requiring countries to guarantee an extra 20% beyond their shares. A cash reserve will provide additional support.

Given the well-publicised and deep financial problems of some Euro-zone members, the effectiveness of the cushion is crucial. The arrangement is similar to the over-collateralisation used in CDO’s to protect investors in higher quality AAA rated senior securities. Investors in subordinated securities, ranking below the senior investors, absorb the first losses up to a specified point (the attachment point). Losses are considered statistically unlikely to reach this attachment point, allowing the senior securities to be rated AAA. The same logic is utilised in rating EFSF bonds.

If 16.7% of guarantors (20% divided by 120%) are unable to fund the EFSF, lenders to the structure will be exposed to losses. Coincidentally, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland happen to represent around this proportion of the guaranteed amount. Greece whilst an Eurozone member will not participate in EFSF’s lending programs as a provider of guarantees for the obvious reason that nobody would seriously place much value on any such guarantee.

Unfortunately, the Global Financial Crisis illustrated that modelling techniques for rating such structures are imperfect. The adequacy of the cushion is unknown. If one peripheral Euro-zone members has a problem then others will have similar problems. If one country requires financing, guarantors of the EFSF will face demands at the exact time that they themselves will be financially vulnerable.

Rubbery Numbers

The rating analysis published by the Agencies highlights subtle but extremely significant features in the structure designed to ensure the desired AAA rating.

Where an Eurozone member draws on the facility, the amount of funds on lent by EFSF will be adjusted by the following deductions:

  • A 50 basis point service fee
    A percentage equal to the net present value of EFSF’s on-lending margin. For example, the Greek financing package had a margin of 300 basis points. This would translate into a deduction of around 13-14% (depending on the discount rate applied).
    [1 and 2 constitute a fungible general cash reserve ("the Reserve") which will support all EFSF debt.]
  • An additional reserve specific to each loan made by EFSF (”the Buffer”) will be created. The exact methodology of determining this buffer has not been disclosed but will determined by several factors. The first factor will be the borrower and it credit condition. The second will be the position EFSF itself and the level of credit support available for its existing obligations.

The Reserve and Buffer are to be invested in liquid AAA rated government, supranational, or agency securities to be available as credit support for the EFSF’s obligations.

The requirement for the Reserve and Buffer significantly reduces the amount of funds available from the EFSF. Standard & Poor’s (”S&P”) estimated that after adjusting for the guarantee overcollateralization and the exclusion of Greece from EFSF’s program, the EFSF can raise up to Euro 350 billion (20% lower than the announced amount). After adjustment for the fact that borrowing governments cannot guarantee EFSF bonds and deduction of the Reserve and Buffer the potential available EFSF lending is further reduced.

Assuming a Reserve of say 13.5% and a Buffer of 10%, this would reduce the amount available to around Euro 270 billion (39% lower than the announced amount). Assuming an equivalent reduction in the IMF component of the package, the total amount available is around Euro 460 billion. The EFSF’s ability to lend compares to the forecast budget financing need of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain of over Euro 500 billion in the period 2009 to 2013.

The structure outlined also increases the cost of the funding for borrowers drawing on the EFSF facility. This additional cost is generated by the fact that the Reserve and Buffer has to be invested in securities that may earn less than the interest paid by EFSF on any issue.

In order to attain the coveted AAA rating, the EFSF structure has been “tweaked” subtly. For example, Moody’s states that “the Buffer is to be sized so that the remaining portion of the debt issue that is not fully backed by cash will be fully covered by contributions from Aaa-rated member states.” In essence this appears to confirm that the EFSF’s rating relies heavily on the support of the guarantees of AAA countries – currently Germany, France, The Netherlands, Austria, Finland, and Luxembourg. In reality this means that significant reliance is being placed on the larger parties such as Germany, France and the Netherlands.

If the EFSF is drawn upon and increasing reliance is placed on cornerstone guarantors such as Germany and France, it is not clear whether politically it will be possible for these countries to continue the facility beyond its original 3-year maturity. Interestingly, S&P state that: “… we consider it likely that its mandate would be extended if market conditions remained unsettled.”

For investors, there is a risk of rating migration, that is, a downgrade of the AAA rating. If the cushion is reduced by problems of an Euro-zone member, then there is a risk that the EFSF securities may be downgraded. Any such ratings downgrade would result in losses to investors. Recent downgrades to the credit rating of Portugal and Ireland highlight this risk.

Given the precarious position of some guarantors and their negative rating outlook, at a minimum, the risk of ratings volatility is significant. The rating agencies indicated that if a larger Euro-zone member encountered financial problems, then the rating and viability of the EFSF might be in jeopardy.

Investors may be cautious about investing in EFSF bonds and, at a minimum, may seek a significant yield premium. The ability of the EFSF to raise funds at the assumed low cost is not assured.

Ironically, the actual structure of credit enhancement encourages troubled countries to access the facility early to ensure its availability. The structure embodies an accelerating “negative feedback loop”.

As market conditions deteriorate, market access becomes limited and countries draw on the EFSF facility (eliminating them from the guaranty pool), increased financial pressure will be exerted on the AAA rated Eurozone countries. The need to maintain adequate coverage to preserve the EFSF’s AAA rating on existing debt will mean that the Buffer will increase and the capacity of the EFSF to lend may become impaired. Moody’s rating analysis indicates that in the event that a large number of countries simultaneously lose market access and draw on the facility, the current lending capacity of the EFSF would likely be overwhelmed. Moody’s believes that it would be unlikely that the EFSF would start issuing under those circumstances.

At this stage, the EFSF have indicated that they don’t plan to issue any debt, as they do not anticipate the facility being used. The facility also has a very short maturity, three years till 2013. The importance of these factors in the grant of the preliminary rating is unknown.

S&P correctly inferred that the “EFSF has been designed to bolster investor confidence and thus contain financing costs for Eurozone member states.” The agency indicated that if its establishment achieved this aim then the EFSF would not to need to issue bonds. However, if as pressures mount and market access becomes problematic for some Eurozone members, then the EFSF and it structure will be tested.

The EFSF’s structure raises significant doubts about its credit worthiness and funding arrangements. In turn, this creates uncertainty about the support for financially challenged Euro-zone members with significant implications for markets.

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