Tag Archives: Maturity structure

Measuring (Greek) Indebtedness

In a Vox column, Daniel Dias und Mark Wright propose various measures of the Greek, Portuguese and Irish public debt burden and emphasize the large variability of these measures.

The following figure, taken from Dias and Wright, shows the scheduled principal and interest payments of Greece, Portugal and Ireland as a percentage of 2014 GDP in the respective country. Not all public debt components are accounted for.

wright fig1 13 nov

Dias and Wright write:

[B]oth Portugal and Ireland face far larger cash flow requirements, relative to the size of their economies, than Greece for the next ten years. [A]fter this ten-year period, the required repayments on Greece’s debt will far exceed those of Portugal and Ireland, measured as a fraction of their economies. [W]hether or not we view Greece as more or less indebted than Portugal and Ireland depends on how we weigh cash flows in the near future (next ten years) versus cash flows in the far future (more than ten years).

… we can discount a country’s entire debt repayment cash flows by the interest rates embodied in their currently traded debts to obtain an estimate of the market value of a country’s debt. This assumes that the likelihood of repayment of Greece’s EFSF debt, for example, is the same as that for privately held bonds. Under these assumptions, as shown in Table 5, Greece appears to have less than half as much debt as either Portugal or Ireland. These numbers are closer to the estimates computed under the IPSAS standard, which records a debt at market value at the time of issue, and allows for the accretion of this debt if the contracted interest rate on the debt is less than the yield to maturity of the debt. This approach has the counterintuitive implication that the more likely a country is to default, the less indebted it will look.

Dias and Wright contrast a conventional face-value debt measure (the sum of the blue bars corresponding to principal repayment obligations in the figure) with more informative measures. With the latter, Greek indebtedness typically is not as high compared with the other countries as with the first measure.

See also this earlier post and this earlier post on the topic.

Greece’s Financial Position Is Widely Misreported

In an FT letter to the editor, Ian Ball, the Chair of CIPFA International (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy), argues that Greece’s financial position is widely misreported. He writes:

While the debt burden is commonly cited as being between 175 and 180 per cent of gross domestic product, this number is incorrect and indefensible because it is based on the face value of Greece’s debt that doesn’t take into account long maturities and concessional interest rates, as well as grace periods.

Greek debt, calculated on an International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) basis, is significantly lower, and at the end of 2013 was 68 per cent of GDP. If this is not an appropriate method for measuring debt, then every company on major stock exchanges around the world has got its debt measurement wrong. In neither accounting standards nor economic principle is debt measured at face value. This pervasive misunderstanding of Greece’s real fiscal position has seen agreements reached between Greece and its creditors that do not address the real problem and instead may actually intensify it.

See also my earlier blog post.

Fed and Treasury Maturity Policies

In a recent paper, Robin Greenwood, Sam Hanson, Josh Rudolph and Larry Summers discuss the joint effect of Fed and Treasury policy on the maturity structure of government liabilities in the hands of the private sector. John Cochrane commends the paper in a blog post.

Greenwood, Hanson, Rudolph and Summers make several points. First, “monetary and fiscal policies have been pushing in opposite directions in recent years.” In spite of QE, long-term government debt held by the private sector increased, mostly due to government deficits but also because the government lengthened the maturity of its debt. Second, Fed and Treasury policies largely are uncoordinated. They argue that this is suboptimal, in particular when the Fed strongly intervenes as it did in the recent QE episodes.

The Federal Reserve has focused purely on the effects that its bond purchases were expected to have on long-term interest rates and, by extension, the economy more broadly. … it completely ignored any possible impact on government fiscal risk, even though the Federal Reserve’s profits and losses are remitted to the Treasury. Conversely, Treasury’s debt management announcements and the advice of the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee (TBAC) have focused on the assumed benefits of extending the average debt maturity from a fiscal risk perspective, and largely ignored the impact of policy changes on long-term yields. To the extent that the Federal Reserve and Treasury ever publicly mention the other institution’s mandate, it is usually in the context of avoiding the perception that one institution might be helping the other achieve an objective. Specifically, the Fed does not want to be seen as monetizing deficits, while the Treasury has been reluctant to acknowledge the Fed as anything more than a large investor.

Third, they argue that from a consolidated government policy perspective, the optimal debt maturity structure is rather short. This saves on interest payments to the private sector (on average) and reduces “liquidity transformation” by the financial sector with dangerous consequences for financial stability. They downplay the risk sharing benefits of longer-term debt and argue that short-term debt has additional advantages at the zero lower bound.

Pages 11-12 contain the following figure, among others:


Maturity Extension as Precondition for Large-Scale IMF Financing Operations?

An IMF staff report published in May and entitled “The Fund’s Lending Framework and Sovereign Debt—Preliminary Considerations” proposes to drop an exemption related to systemic importance and to give a larger role to debt maturity extensions.

Prior to 2002, when a member state sought funds in excess of established limits, the Fund often waived these limits on the basis of “exceptional circumstances,” and did so in a discretionary manner. Growing concerns over the problems this may create (moral hazard, early exit of private creditors, delays in necessary debt reduction measures, large-scale Fund financing operations) and the Argentinian collapse of 2001 triggered a review that gave rise to the 2002 exceptional access framework.

This required as a precondition for Fund support that debt be sustainable with a high probability. Whenever debt sustainability was clearly not given or remained in doubt, the framework called for debt restructuring with the aim to render the remaining debt sustainable. In retrospect, this restructuring requirement is viewed as too inflexible since it generates restructuring costs even when it turns out ex post that a restructuring was not actually needed.

During the Euro area crises, the Fund did not judge debt sustainability of the most affected countries to be very likely and the exceptional access framework of 2002 therefore would have required a debt restructuring as a precondition for IMF funding. However, pointing to high risks of international systemic spillovers of a debt restructuring, the Fund waived in 2010 the requirement that debt had to be sustainable with a high probability. By now, this modification of the exceptional access framework is also seen as unsatisfactory because systemic exemption structurally favors large member states and does not address the problems that gave rise to the 2002 framework. Against this background, a reform proposal is put forward.

The reform proposal is guided by two objectives: To improve debt service capacity without imposing debt reduction as a prerequisite; and to avoid that private sector claims are fully honored while debt sustainability remains in doubt. According to the proposal, the IMF would require as precondition for funding that measures are taken to improve debt sustainability even if they do not necessarily restore sustainability with high probability. Chief among those measures, the proposal suggests that creditors should be asked to agree on a maturity extension (re-profiling). That is, private creditors would remain exposed to the default risk and would be forced to contribute to the refinancing.

Collective action clauses might be needed to win creditors over. For a majority of them to be voluntarily participating, they must perceive the maturity extension as likely leading to renewed market access of the sovereign. Even in the absence of a payment default, re-profiling would likely trigger a credit event if collective action clauses were activated, and a credit downgrade among rating agencies.

“Debt Maturity Without Commitment,” JME, 2014

Journal of Monetary Economics 68(S), December 2014. PDF.

How does sovereign risk shape the maturity structure of public debt? We consider a government that balances benefits of default, due to tax savings, and costs, due to output losses. Debt issuance affects subsequent default and rollover decisions and thus, current debt prices. This induces welfare costs beyond the consumption smoothing benefits from the marginal unit of debt. The equilibrium maturity structure minimises these welfare costs. It is interior with positive gross positions and shortens during times of crisis and low output, consistent with empirical evidence.

“Toward a Run-Free Financial System”

In the tenth chapter of “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis,” John Cochrane argues that at its core, the financial crisis was a run and thus, policy responses should focus on mitigating the risk of runs (blog posts by Cochrane on the same topic can be found here and here). Some excerpts:

… demand deposits, fixed-value money-market funds, or overnight debt … [should be] backed entirely by short-term Treasuries. Investors who want higher returns must bear price risk. …

Banks can still mediate transactions, of course. For example, a bank-owned ATM machine can deliver cash by selling your shares in a Treasury-backed money market fund … Banks can still be broker-dealers, custodians, derivative and swap counterparties and market makers, and providers of a wide range of financial services, credit cards, and so forth. They simply may not fund themselves by issuing large amounts of run-prone debt.

If a demand for separate bank debt really exists, the equity of 100 percent equity-financed banks can be held by a downstream institution or pass-through vehicle that issues equity and debt tranches. That vehicle can fail and be resolved in an hour …

Rather than outlawing short-term debt, Cochrane suggests to levy corrective taxes on run-prone liabilities. Moreover:

… technology allows us to overcome the long-standing objections to narrow banking. Most deeply, “liquidity” no longer requires that people hold a large inventory of fixed-value, pay-on-demand, and hence run-prone securities.

… electronic transactions can easily be made with Treasury-backed or floating-value money-market fund shares, in which the vast majority of transactions are simply netted by the intermediary. … On the supply end, $18 trillion of government debt is enough to back any conceivable remaining need for fixed-value default-free assets.

Cochrane rejects the claim that the need for money-like assets can only be met by banks that “transform” maturity or liquidity. He argues that current regulation reflects a history of piecemeal responses that triggered the need for additional measures; and he points out that the shadow banking system creates run risks because a “broker-dealer may have used your securities as collateral for borrowing” to fund proprietary trading.

Cochrane debunks crisis lingo and clarifies links between aggregate variables:

The only way to consume less and invest less is to pile up government debt. So a “flight to quality” and a “decline in aggregate demand” are the same thing.

He questions the need for fixed value securities other than short-term government debt as means of payment or savings vehicle; offers a short history of financial regulation; and deplores regulatory discretion.

Sovereign Debt Composition in Advanced Economies

S. M. Ali Abbas, Laura Blattner, Mark De Broeck, Asmaa El-Ganainy and Malin Hu report in Vox about their debt structure database spanning the period 1900–2011 and covering Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US. Data is disaggregated along the following dimensions: Currency; maturity (of local currency debt); marketability; holders (non-residents, national central bank, domestic commercial banks, rest).

Their main findings are:

  • Advanced economies’ debt typically was denominated in local currency, with the exception of post-WWI France and Italy.
  • Governments issued longer-dated paper in good times.
  • The share of central government debt that was issued in the form of marketable securities declined until after World War II and increased again in the 1970s, to around 80% today.
  • National central banks and domestic commercial banks held about 30% of the debt until 1970. Afterwards, non-resident participation in sovereign debt markets soared.
  • Large increases in debt often were accompanied by a rise of short-term, foreign currency-denominated debt held by the banking system, with the exception of the 1980s and 1990s where more long-term local-currency marketable debt was issued.
  • Evidence for financial repression in combination with inflation after World War II.

They suggest that countries mainly followed two strategies to reduce debt quotas. One, based on fiscal consolidation and moderate inflation, going hand in hand with long maturities. The other, based on high inflation and reliance on debt holdings by captive domestic investors, going hand in hand with shorter maturities.

Link to the data.

“Debt-Maturity without Commitment,” CEPR, 2008

CEPR Discussion Paper 7093, December 2008. PDF.

We analyze how sovereign risk paired with social costs of default shapes the maturity structure of public debt. A government without commitment power balances benefits of default, due to tax savings, and costs, due to output losses. Debt issuance affects subsequent default and rollover decisions and thus, current debt prices. This induces welfare costs beyond the consumption smoothing benefits from the marginal unit of debt. The equilibrium choice of short- versus long-term debt issuance minimizes these welfare costs. Consistent with empirical evidence, closed-form solutions of the model predict an interior maturity structure with positive gross positions and a shortening of the maturity structure during times of crisis and low output. In simulations, the model replicates additional features of the data.