Lisbon Woes, Headed on the Road to Athens

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European officials have insisted that Greece is unique. Many market participants do not believe them. Portugal appears to be headed down that same road. While we have warned in the past of risks that Portugal would need a second aid package, it is only since S&P joined the other major rating agencies in rating Portuguese debt below investment grade on January 13 that more market participants have come over to this view.

Currency in Crisis
Portugal's 10-year yield poked through the 15% level for the first time ever. On January 12th, the eve of the downgrade the yield was about 12.4%. The shorter end of the curve has also been crushed and 2-10 yr is inverted. The 2-year was yielding 12.31% before the S&P downgrade. Now it is approaching 17%.

After Greece, insurance on Portuguese debt is the most expensive in the world. The 5-year CDS was at 1066 on the Jan 12th and is at a new record high of 1425 today. The risk of a default has risen from about 62% on Jan 12 to near 75% today.

Of course, Portuguese officials are right. Portuguese macro fundamentals are superior to Greece. Debt/GDP is lower at about 112% vs almost 190% for Greece, for example. It has about 129 bln euros of outstanding debt instruments and the average maturity is just below 6 years.

Yet the difference is not of a sufficient magnitude to keep the wolf away from the door. The 78 bln euro aid package was to keep Portugal form having to issue medium and long term debt until May 2013. In October 2013, Portugal has a 9 bln euro bond maturing that it will need to roll.

This may seem to be too far in the future to be very meaningful, but these kind of things seem to take on a life of their own. Since Portugal is rated below investment grade, it is being ejected from benchmark indices that numerous fund manager use.

Once the investment grade status is lost, it takes some time (and effort) to recoup it. Moreover, conditions are likely to get worse in the coming months. Consider that the economy, that appears to have contracted by 1.6% in 2011, is expected to contract 3.5% this year and another 1% next year.

The risk that Portugal will not be able to return to the capital markets next year is important and it will require more aid. If Greece is to be forgiven for half the debt in private hands, why should Portugal not ask for some forgiveness too?

The rules of private sector engagement are IMF practices and the IMF often seeks private sector involvement/haircuts, as a condition of reducing debt to sustainable levels. Officials might not be able to say as much, but investors beginning to anticipate this eventuality.

Just as important the pressure on Portugal shows that the firewall around Greece, hoped to have been strengthened by the LTRO and euro area official efforts, has been breached. Portugal is where Greece was 6-9 months ago. The question is while Portugal be where Greece is today toward the end of the year. Unless European officials take preventative action the rot will continue and the contagion risk remains real.

Lisbon Woes, Headed on the Road to Athens Lisbon Woes, Headed on the Road to Athens Reviewed by Marc Chandler on January 27, 2012 Rating: 5
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