To burn bondholders or not to burn them – is there a third option?

Is it any wonder there is so much confusion about what to do with the bank bondholders?

Less than twelve months ago (February 10th to be precise) Leo Varadkar was saying:

Any bank coming to us looking for more money is going to have to show how they are going to impose losses on their junior bondholders, on their senior bondholders, and on other creditors before they come looking to us for any more money. Not another cent.”

That was before the General Election. Eight months after the election; the now Minister Varadkar had changed tack and was saying:

What’s happening in relation to the Anglo bondholders is they’ll be paid from Anglo’s own resources, from the sale of its own property assets, for example.

By last weekend the line had developed further. On Sunday he was  says that the Government “had to weigh up the costs on the one side and the risks on the other.” and that not paying the €1.2billion of Anglo bonds due this Wednesday: “…would have implications for other State companies like ESB and Bord Gáis,”

It is probably a littler bit unfair to single out Minister Varadkar like this. He was saying pretty much what everyone else was saying in FG during this period. His skill and talent was that he said it more directly and concisely than almost any of his colleagues. It is what makes his quotes more memorable.

Whatever about the changes in the Fine Gael script, two bigger truths have not changed over the past year. The ironic part is that these truths are contradictory.

The first is that the ECB is still holding to its line that bond holders should not be ‘burned’. By that they mean that bond holders should not be forced to accept any reduction in the monies due to them.

The other is the reality that there is a very active market in bonds being sold off at a discount in return for hard cash. These discounts can be fairly hefty, particularly where those bonds have a tasty coupon included.

This trade in bonds was touched upon at a recent seminar on the issue of offset debt, hosted by Thomas Pringle TD and how it could ease the plight of those in negative equity.

Some bond holders are deciding, in their own business interests, to mitigate their losses and sell bonds at a discount. Their rationale is that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush: a not uncommon business approach.

They sell the bonds on to vulture capitalists who buy the bonds at a 30, 40 or even 50% discount. They retain the bonds face value, and so, they stand to make a hefty profile when the bonds are paid off.

While bondholders may choose to do this, the ECB says they must not be made to do it – except in the case of Greece, but let’s put that to one side for the moment.

This leaves a classic Catch 22. Investors, speculators and traders are selling bonds between each other at varying hefty discounts, with the prospects of making even bigger profits.

It is one thing to say that bond holder’s rights should not be ridden over and allow the market to function, but telling European taxpayers that they should not enter the open market and offer to buy back those bonds, is another.

Its like signing an IOU and watching it being traded among your friends for less than its face value, but being told you cannot dare attempt to buy it back: even if the guy currently holding it would be willing to sell it to you.

Ireland cannot do a solo run and give two fingers to the ECB, but it needs to start canvassing opinion around the EU table to start looking at this issue again.

The noises coming from the new Belgian government, coupled with the prospect of a new occupant of the Élysée Palace come the summer suggests it may be a route worth exploring. Something, perhaps, for the Taoiseach to consider as he heads to Brussels?

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