Banking & Finance

Trouble for Greece and the Greek Banks, All Over Again

If there is ever a country in Europe that seems to always have some strife, Greece has to top of the list. Many investors and economists have been worried about the bank debt problems of Italy, but Greece has an even more checkered history among fellow members of the dubious “PIIGS” nations (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Greek shares traded lower on Tuesday ahead of a confidence vote for Greece’s government set for Wednesday night.

Alexis Tsipras defended a deal to end a nearly three-decade dispute over Macedonia, which will allow the smaller nation to join NATO and to more easily join the European Union. The Washington Post has reported that Tsipras is expected to narrowly win this vote of confidence, despite his Syriza party not having enough formal votes yet secure a victory.

A report that the European Central Bank (ECB) is demanding a stronger cleanup of the bad loans held by banks added pressure. The main report focused on Italy, but now Greece has been pointed to as well.

The Athens General Stocks Index was down over 1% at 622.80, but the banks index was down about 5%, led by a more than 7% drop in the local shares of National Bank of Greece and a decline of more than 6% in the rival Alpha Bank. Piraeus Bank’s local shares were down more than 3%.

The reports come on the same day that ECB President Mario Draghi spoke regarding the 20 year anniversary of the euro’s single-currency system. Part of this speech might even make you think that things were still improving in Europe:

Today, we can say that the euro area has emerged from a crisis so severe as to threaten at times its existence. We are out of it, primarily because of the resilience, the energy, and the entrepreneurial capacity of European citizens, as well as their trust in their leaders’ commitment to the euro. Our policy response and the important changes to the architecture of the EMU in the meantime also helped the euro area out of the crisis. In many ways we have a stronger monetary union today than we had in 2008. This is also reflected in the euro’s popularity among euro area citizens, which is currently at its highest level since it was introduced. But more work is still necessary to complete the EMU, so as to make it more resilient in the face of future crises.

Unfortunately, recent weakness in European economic reports is making it very difficult for the ECB to join the Federal Reserve in a normalization of interest rates. Those rates were low for too long in the United States, but there has been a previously unexplored policy of negative interest rates in Europe, along with the ECB’s buying of endless debt instruments.

There are very few ways for U.S. investors to trade Greek companies in the United States, aside from shipping companies, but there is the Global X MSCI Greece ETF (NYSEARCA: GREK), which was down better than 2% at $7.12 in Tuesday afternoon trading. It has a 52-week range of $6.77 to $11.56, but this was a $25.00 exchange traded fund just over five years ago, when National Bank of Greece had its American depositary shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Tuesday’s losses were on top of additional losses in Greece on Monday. According to Bloomberg, the Athens Stock Exchange fell over 1% early on Monday, with the Greek banking index down better than 3%. Its 10-year bonds, partially bolstered by such low rates elsewhere in Europe, were trading with a yield of roughly 4.3%.

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