Investors face defaults on government bonds given the burden of aging populations and the difficulty of increasing tax revenue, according to a Morgan Stanley executive director.
“Governments will impose a loss on some of their stakeholders,” Arnaud Mares in the firm’s London office wrote in a research report today. “The question is not whether they will renege on their promises, but rather upon which of their promises they will renege, and what form this default will take.” The sovereign-debt crisis is global “and it is not over,” he wrote.
Rather than miss principal and interest payments, governments may choose a “soft” default in which they pay back debts with devalued currencies resulting from faster inflation or force creditors to take lower returns, Mares said in an interview.
Borrowing costs for so-called peripheral euro-region nations from Greece to Ireland surged today, resuming their ascent on concern that governments won’t be able to cut their budget deficits. Standard & Poor’s lowered Ireland’s credit rating yesterday on the rising cost of supporting nationalized banks.
Population trends may be a better predictor of the ability to meet obligations rather than debt as a percentage of gross domestic product, which doesn’t reflect governments’ available revenue and is “backward-looking,” Mares wrote.
While the U.S. government’s debt is 53 percent of GDP, one of the lowest ratios among developed nations, its debt as a percentage of revenue is 358 percent, one of the highest, the report said. Italy has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios, at 116 percent, yet has a debt-to-revenue ratio of 188, Mares said.
“Outright sovereign default in large advanced economies remains an extremely unlikely outcome, in our view,” the report said. “But current yields and break-even inflation rates provide very little protection against the credible threat of financial oppression in any form it might take.”
Mares, who didn’t identify which nations may default, once worked at the U.K.’s Debt Management Office and is a former senior vice-president at credit-rating company Moody’s Investors Service.
“Note that a double-dip recession would not invalidate this conclusion,” Mares’ report said. “It would cause yet further damage to the governments’ power to tax, pushing them further in negative equity and therefore increasing the risks that debt holders suffer a larger loss eventually.”
Investor concern that the U.S. may fall back into recession has grown in recent weeks as data missed economists’ estimates. A Citigroup Inc. index of U.S. economic data surprises fell to minus 59 last week, the least since January 2009.
A report from the Commerce Department today showed U.S. durable goods orders increased 0.3 percent, compared with the 3 percent median estimate of 75 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, figures showed today in Washington. The number of unemployment claims unexpectedly shot up by 12,000 to 500,000 in the week ended Aug 14, Labor Department figures showed Aug. 19.
Yields on German and U.S. benchmark securities sank today as investors sought the safest assets. U.S. two-year Treasury yields, at a four-month high 1.18 percent on April 5, fell to a record low 0.4542 percent yesterday.
Greek Debt Yields
The yield on Greek debt rose to more than 900 basis points above that of Germany today, the most since the European Union and International Monetary Fund created a 750 billion-euro ($948 billion) bailout package in May. Greece’s so-called yield spread over German debt was at 932 basis points as of 2:18 p.m. in London, short of the 973 basis-point record set on May 7. The Irish-German yield spread rose to a record 347 basis points, from 318 points yesterday.
Credit-default swaps that insure Irish government bonds against non-payment for five years rose 21 basis points to 331 today, the most since March 2009, according to data provider CMA. Greek swaps jumped to 921.5, the most since June, from 896.
“The conflict that opposes bondholders to other government stakeholders is more intense than ever, and their interests are no longer sufficiently well-aligned with those of influential political constituencies,” such as elderly voters and their claims on pensions and health insurance, Mares wrote.