Economic Outlook: The scavenger diet

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  Jan. 25, 2012 at 9:56 AM
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In London, the vultures are now wondering if they ate too much debt over the last month or so.

The carcass in question is Greece. The vultures in this multibillion dollar melodrama are hedge funds that gobbled up $5.2 billion of Greek bonds they expected would mature on March 20. And well they might. But the hedge funds were also counting on the European Union and the International Monetary Fund coming to the rescue with about $38 billion that Greece is scheduled to receive as part of an international bailout effort. That is the only way Greece can meet its obligations.

But one of the stipulations for Greece to receive that tranche was that Athens convince creditors to accept a 50 percent devaluation of their Greek debt. And guess who wouldn't budge.

The hedge funds that bought the bonds at favorable 40 cents to the dollar rates were betting the EU would not notice they had gone on a buying spree or would ignore their own stipulation. The EU wants Greece to make a faithful effort toward fiscal reform, so these big loans are not going into a sink hole.

The hedge funds are now attempting to bail out of the trap they set, as at least four EU nations have said there would be no more handouts until Greece makes good on its fiscal reforms.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the going rate was now down to 35 cents on the dollar.

But the question still remains: Will the EU step in at the last minute and back down on its tough stance or will it hold firm?

It is a cut-throat game at this point. Failure to meet its obligation would force Greece to go into default on March 20, which would, in turn, force the EU to turn Greece out as a member of the eurozone -- the equivalent of a divorce with one party trying to distance himself or herself from the other party's debts.

But gaining that distance is proving to be difficult. Who wants to buy Greek debt now? Hedge funds purchased the debt from banks where managers were grinning ever wider with each bond that went out the door. These were banks that were laughing their way to the bank, so to speak. Now the hedge funds want to sell them back.

"It was a very binary trade. If you got paid, you double your money in a month. But you may also look like an idiot," an anonymous hedge fund executive told the Times.

In international markets Wednesday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan added 1.12 percent, while the Sensex in India rose 0.48 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia added 1.12 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index shed 0.72 percent, while the DAX 30 in Germany dropped 0.56 percent. The CAC 40 in France gave up 0.68 percent, while the Stoxx Europe 600 dropped 0.73 percent.

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