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希腊违约或可免,经济放缓似难逃

Katie Benner 2011年07月04日

救助希腊可能无法阻止欧洲大陆陷入信贷危机,也无法阻止新一轮的全球经济放缓,原因何在?

    希腊国会已批准了一项严厉的经济紧缩计划,以便能从欧盟(European Union)和国际货币基金组织(International Monetary Fund)获取资金援助,包括去年敲定的救助方案的其余部分和第二轮救助方案。迄今为止,欧洲官员们已投入近2,700亿美元来维持希腊的正常运转,这意味着他们可能会不惜一切代价来阻止一个丧失偿债能力的国家宣布破产。德国和法国银行业是希腊最大的债权人,它们也协力参与了一系列复杂的方案,希望推迟债务到期日。

    希望这些强有力的支持信息能安抚市场,延迟可能摧毁欧盟的财政崩溃,让欧洲大陆的高负债国家在市场定价较为仁慈时通过再融资、解决自身问题。

    不幸的是,这不是市场运作方式。正如一位研究主权债务的对冲基金经理告诉我的那样,1) 无需出现真正的到期违约,收益率就可能飙升至必须重组的水平;2) 市场总是强制重组。市场预测机构Elliott Wave的分析师布莱恩•魏特曼对此表示赞同,他说“人们会在某一个突然醒悟,意识到危机已大到难以控制。”一开始官员们说不可能发生债务危机,后来他们说危机可以控制,再然后信心突然凭空丧失,政客们说没人会预见到这会在一夜之间发生,而且如此严重。透过希腊最近的权宜之计,一些经济学家和投资者们认为,现在是时候接受这样一个观点了,即未来几年内我们将看到欧洲主权信贷危机爆发,全球经济再现衰退。

    不妨回想2008年,当时美国官员们也未能令华尔街摆脱末日审判。一开始,美联储(Federal Reserve)拿出了约300亿美元来防止贝尔斯登(Bear Stearns)一败涂地,并将它推入了JP摩根(JPMorgan)的怀抱。美联储主席本•伯南克这一年春天告诉国会,此举旨在防止华尔街出现摇摇欲坠的乱象。一旦贝尔斯登的状况得到控制,其他高负债金融公司的压力也会得到缓解——如果市场停止向这些公司提供短期融资,它们也可能面临类似的流动性问题。“我希望这是偶尔为之,将来无需再做类似的事情。”伯南克在向美国国会作证时说道。

    但接下来,债券持有人开始撤出房利美(Fannie Mae)和房地美(Freddie Mac),迫使当时的美国财政部长汉克•保尔森宣布由政府为这两家按揭贷款公司提供担保。保尔森将之称为“火箭筒”,认为一旦投资者知道他为此囤积大量弹药,投资者必然会平静下来。但整个夏季,房利美和房地美的股票和债券都持续下跌,最后美国政府不得不接管这两家公司,并立即提供2,000亿美元的财务支持。

    此后不久,金融机构接二连三地出现触礁。没人愿意借钱给GE Capital、雷曼兄弟(Lehman Brothers)、美国国际集团(AIG)和美林(Merrill Lynch)等;需要美国政府向这些公司投入资金,出钱拯救券商,就雷曼而言,还要应对令人头痛的破产带来的影响。

    对于那些能维持流动性的公司来说,火箭筒或系统性灾难威胁都不重要。当贷款机构觉得风险过高时,他们会一下子立即停掉贷款。毕竟,没人希望自己是最后一个撤离的贷款者。

    那么,现在让我们来看一看欧洲。市场知道希腊、爱尔兰、意大利和葡萄牙的负债也已超出偿付能力。去年的希腊救助方案并未解决问题,如今已气势汹汹地卷土重来。葡萄牙和爱尔兰的债券利差现处于历史高点,股票交易和研究公司MKM Partners的首席经济学家迈克•达尔达认为这两个国家也需要二次救助。

    “市场呼吁将各方召集到一起,让股票和债券持有人做出让步,拿出有意义的重组方案来,”对冲基金Bearing Asset Management的联合创始人比尔•拉格尼尔表示,“但这会非常痛苦,特别是对银行家而言,他们可能不愿这样做,而官员们也不想让他们这样做。”

    希腊国内的抗议说明经济紧缩计划的实际效果可能不如纸面预期。希腊民众不满政府通过削减个人收入和资产净值,直接将利益输送至那些为希腊提供贷款的金融公司。

    而且,一旦债券持有人——包括欧洲银行业,美国货币市场基金和全球的主权债券CDS交易对手——最终迫于市场的压力,不得不承认投资亏损之,接下来的情况会如何?如果政治因素让人难以决断,如果金融机构试图掩盖损失,如果没人知道他们的交易对手财务上出现了怎样的问题,“可能造成整个体系内出现传染性的恐慌情绪,导致情况变得一团糟,”拉格尼尔表示。这很可能造成又一次的全球信贷冻结。

    “到那时,我们是承受痛苦,还是采取饮鸩止渴的办法,提升欧洲央行和美联储的资产负债表,”拉格尼尔问道。不管是全球银行业、保险公司和投资者承认巨额亏损,还是各国央行们试图印刷足够的纸币来填补黑洞,都会看到经济增长放缓(大萧条第二部?),并可能出现全球性高通胀。“现在即将进入了一个非常黯淡的时期,”拉格尼尔表示。

    魏特曼一直预测会出现二次探底的经济衰退,下一阶段的熊市将“比上一阶段好一些”。这是他预见的欧洲前景。政府官员们将继续把债务负担从自愿承担风险的投资者转移至纳税人身上。还会出现更多的民众骚乱。主权债务问题将扩大至欧洲核心国——法国、德国和英国——然后至美国。他预计2014-2016年的某个时候将出现真正的经济放缓。

    预测灾难的言论似乎很难没有哈罗德•康平的影子,但相比之下,要预测欧洲如何才能不撞墙难度更大。

    The Greek Parliament approved a tough austerity plan so that the country could get money from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, including the rest of the bailout hammered out last year and a second aid package. Europe's officials have now spent nearly $270 billion to keep Greece going, signaling that they will spend whatever it takes to keep an insolvent country from declaring the equivalent of bankruptcy. German and French banks, Greece's largest lenders, are also pitching in with complex plans that push off the day when debts come due.

    The hope is that these strong messages of support will calm markets, stave off a fiscal collapse that could destroy the European Union, and let the Continent's highly levered countries refinance their problems away when market pricing is more forgiving.

    Unfortunately, that's not how the marketplace works. As a hedge fund manager who has been studying sovereign debt told me, 1) you don't need an actual maturity default for yields to run so high that they force a restructuring; and 2) the market always forces a restructuring. Brian Whitmer, an analyst with Elliott Wave, agrees. "There is a light bulb moment when everyone wakes up and says that a crisis is just too big to manage," says Whitmer. First officials first say it can't happen. Then they say it will be contained. And then a loss of confidence comes out of nowhere and politicians say that no one could have predicted it would occur overnight or with such severity. Looking past Greece's most recent Band-Aid, some economists and investors think it's time to accept that in the next few year's we'll witness Europe's sovereign credit collapse and be thrown into another global recession.

    Just think back to 2008, when our officials failed to stave off a come-to-Jesus-moment on Wall Street. First, the Federal Reserve put up about $30 billion to keep Bear Stearns from outright failure and pushed it into the arms of JPMorgan. The move was supposed to prevent a "chaotic unwinding" of Wall Street, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress that spring. Once the Bear situation was in hand, the thinking went, pressure would ease on other over-levered financial players that could face similar liquidity problems if markets stopped providing them short-term money. "I hope this is a rare event, I hope this is something we never have to do again," Bernanke testified.

    But bondholders next fled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, forcing then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to declare that the government would back the mortgage companies. Sheriff Paulson called the guarantee his bazooka, and thought that investors would calm down once they knew he was packing so much heat. But Fannie and Freddie stocks and bonds continued to fall throughout the summer, and the government was forced to take over the companies and provide $200 billion in immediate financial support.

    Shortly thereafter, financial institutions hit the skids in rapid succession. No one wanted to lend to the likes of GE Capital, Lehman Brothers, AIG [NYSE: AIG], or Merrill Lynch; and the government needed to throw money at these companies, broker rescues, and in the case of Lehman, deal with the fallout from a very messy bankruptcy.

    Bazookas and the risk of a systemwide castastrophe didn't really matter to the players who were able to keep the liquidity spigots open. Lenders stopped lending almost all at once when they decided that the risks were too high. After all, no one wants to be the last guy giving out money after everyone else has fled.

    So now let's look at Europe. The market knows that Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal have more debt than they can pay. Last year's Greek bailout didn't solve the problem and now it's back with a vengeance. Debt spreads in Portugal and Ireland are near all-time highs, and Michael Darda, chief economist at MKM Partners, thinks these countries will need a second bailout, too.

    "The market is saying, get together and impair the stock and bondholders and come up with a restructuring that makes sense," says Bill Laggner, a co-founder of the hedge fund Bearing Asset Management. "But the pain would be so extreme, mainly for the bankers, that they don't want to do it and the political class doesn't want to make them do it."

    Protesters in Greece are showing us that austerity plans work better on paper that in real life. Citizens aren't embracing the idea of cutting their personal income and net worth so that it can be funneled directly to financial players who loaned to Greece.

    And when those bondholders -- European banks, American money market funds, and credit default swap counterparties around the world -- are finally forced by the market to admit that they've lost money on their investments, what happens next? If politics cloud decision making, financial institutions try to hide losses, and no one is sure how financially dented their counterparties are, "it could create a panic, contagion, total systemic fear, and things start to unravel," says Laggner. That's a formula for another global credit freeze.

    "Then do we take the pain, or do we go with the nuclear option of increasing the balance sheets of the ECB and the Fed," Laggner asks. Whether the world's banks, insurance companies, and investors come clean with big losses, or central bankers try to print enough money to try to fill the hole, you get slow growth (Great Recession part II anyone?) and possibly flirt with the possibility of global hyper inflation. "You go into a very dark place," says Laggner.

    Whitmer has been predicting a double dip recession, with the next phase of the bear market "to be stronger than the last." This is how he sees Europe playing out. Government officials will continue to transfer liabilities onto tax payers from those investors who took the risk willingly. There will be more civil unrest. Sovereign debt problems will spread into the core of Europe -- France, Germany, and Britian -- and then to the US. He expects an actual slowdown to come to pass between 2014 and 2016.

    It's hard to not sound like Harold Camping when predicting a meltdown, but it's harder still to see how Europe does not hit the wall.

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