Greece vs. Lehman Brothers

Gassner's picture

Is it fair to compare Greece with Lehman Brothers? May be not, but in fact many would want to figure out, what would happen if sometime later, e.g. in summer Greece would default. Will it be like Lehman? Wouldn't a country's default be more serious than a bank's?

Thus the question is how to compare the size of a country with a size of an investment bank? Surely not exactly but some figures are indeed interesting:

The economy of Greece has a national income of USD 242 billion (nominal gross domestic product) according to World Bank statistics for the year 2013. And the GDP to Debt ratio is said to be around 174%.

Lehman Brothers back in the 2007 annual report showed a net income of USD 4 bn. With long term borrowing of Lehman stood at USD 123 bn this would look much worse in terms of income and debt level than Greece. A better comparison for debt sustainability would need to take into account the assets of a country and a corporate of course. Lehman had reported USD 691 bn. What are the national assets of a country???

From this end Greece would be much bigger in terms of annual income, but much less indebted than Lehman and less than other countries in the world.

However, a major issue was the derivative exposure of Lehman, while the exact size has not been published, Lehman Brothers’ global derivatives portfolio was estimated to be USD 35
trillion in notional value, representing about five percent of derivatives transactions globally.

This unsettled amount stretched the financial system to its edge as nobody knew any longer, which bank remained solvent.

A default of Greece would come with lesser surprise, much more preparation time and if anything a tiny fraction of the derivative exposure. As such a default and possible exit of the Eurozone remains feasible without a meltdown. There is of course some risk that other countries will follow.

And again, as a reminder, the global debt crisis will continue whether Greece defaults or not. As long as equity finance is discriminated by Basle banking regulation and taxation, the global debt/equity ratios remain out of balance and recurring financial crisis are the norm of the day = the new "normal". Equitisation is the key policy requirement, not quantitative easing.

Greece while imprudent in its financial habits, is just one, which suffers earlier than others. Some solidarity, more equitisation and investment programs would be a good alternative to a default. Further interest-bearing loans just help to offload other people's exposure to Greek debt.

Best regards,

Michael Gassner