The Irruption of the Event

As the inevitable Greek exit from the eurozone seemingly approaches, it’s worth comparing current statements about Greece to how the financial press and regulators considered Lehman Brothers the week before its collapse set the global markets into panic mode. (See below for a selection of illuminating comments from officials about Lehman Brothers pre-collapse and about Greece pre-exit.) Reading these misplaced predictions, one thing becomes clear: the contemporary financial system is far too complex and opaque for anyone to determine the precise consequences of a Greek exit. Add into that the unpredictable nature of crisis politics (e.g. today sees rumors of Greek governing coalitions flying all over the place), and one has a system that quickly surpasses our capacities for forecasting. In this regard it’s interesting to read reports about the current Greek exit fears versus the reports in February when it also looked like Greece might leave (prior to the second of ECB’s long-term refinancing operations (LTROs) that managed to calm markets for a short while). In the earlier reports many commentators considered that French and German banks had largely separated themselves from Greek exposure, while the initial LTRO had purportedly given the financial system the flexibility it needed to survive any temporary disruption. Intriguingly, today’s fears about Greece, after the failure of the LTROs to significantly improve the situation and combined with fears over Spain’s banking system, are much more apocalyptic than in February.

The unfortunate truth is that while a Greek exit will be devastating to the Greek people (of this everyone is confident), it is still a better option than the continued austerity regime. Even the most optimistic IMF estimates of Greece’s economy under the austerity regime only see them returning to 120% debt-to-GDP ratio by 2020 – i.e. the same level that so worries commentators about Italy today. What is being asked of Greece is a state of permanent austerity and permanent social chaos. 

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

September 9, 2008 – http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/10/business/10place.html?pagewanted=all

Unlike Bear Stearns, which effectively collapsed when customers fled for the exits and the firm could not finance itself, Lehman Brothers has more sources of long-term financing and like other broker-dealers, access to emergency financing from the Federal Reserve. Mr. Fuld said that the existence of that lending facility should take any question of Lehman facing a liquidity crisis “off the table.

September 12, 2008 – http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/b3506214-80d5-11dd-82dd-000077b07658.html#axzz1mXeJ33ET

While the crisis at Bear stunned the markets, other financial institutions have had six months to prepare for the possible failure of Lehman. In the Bear crisis, the risks were extreme in part because they were unknown and unmanaged. The New York Fed has conducted extensive stress tests in order to attempt to evaluate the impact of a Lehman failure on markets such as the CDS market and it believes the systemic risk is quantifiable and lower than the risk that was posed by the imminent collapse of Bear back in March. Regulators have also evaluated the risk mitigation strategies put in place by other banks and the authorities believe them to be robust. That suggests the risk that a Lehman collapse could trigger a domino effect of failures at other financial institutions ought not to be great.

September 14, 2008 – http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/f3586ede-80ca-11dd-82dd-000077b07658.html#axzz1mXeJ33ET

Mr Paulson believes that the systemic risks associated with the potential failure of Lehman have been reduced because the market has had time to prepare for its possible demise, and a new Fed funding facility would assist an orderly unwinding of its positions.

February 15, 2012 – http://blogs.channel4.com/faisal-islam-on-economics/eurozone-reaches-its-lehman-moment-as-germany-insults-greece/16278

All the while, the chatter in euro policy circles, as I wrote on Monday, is that the Greek rot will not infect the rest of the euro area. A default could be managed. Even the odd French bank has managed to dispose of much of its exposure. We’ve had months to prepare. And, so the Lehman moment comes full circle. Three and a half years ago we were told exactly the same by Hank Paulson and co re Lehmans: The system, we were told, was strong enough. Finns, Dutch and some Germans increasingly think the same about a Greek default.

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