Monday, May 24, 2010

Swapping Risk

I promised more on Greece and that it wouldn't involve Greek drama. I'm following through on that below.

European leaders, especially in Germany, resisted initial clamor that they would bailout Greece before coordinated a 750 billion euro bailout plan. Now several Republican Congressmen are fighting against using IMF money funded by the United States to aid Greece.

The move puts them at odd with actions already being taken by the Federal Reserve. Just last week the Fed restarted swap lines with major central banks that allow them to access dollars. Of course the size of these swaps is miniscule. Total outstanding swaps were valued at less than $10 billion. Yet recognizing the chance of global contagion the move opens swap options to banks outside Europe, such as the Bank of Canada and Bank of Japan.

From swap size alone, Greece looks much more like Bear Stearns than Lehman or AIG, when swap lines grew to over $500 billion.

But looking simply at the size of the swaps is misguided. Before responding last week to the Greek crisis, swaps had been out of use since February. The haste by American officials to respond signaled a willingness to forestall a crisis, or more accurately to stand ready should the crisis spread. Lawmakers have both derided the Fed for acting with little authority and benefited by not having to approve any funding the Fed did provide. Moves to reduce American involvement in IMF plans are more likely to drive American involvement to places like the Fed, and outside of Congressional oversight, rather than reducing the overall burden.