Eurozone: An elusive debt resolution
by Peter Spiegel
As recently as a month ago, it appeared that a second bail-out of Greece would be a relatively straightforward affair. As with previous rescues cobbled together by the European Union and its lending partner, the International Monetary Fund, staff economists would estimate Athens’ financing hole over the next three years (about €115bn), agree a reform programme with the government and start writing cheques.
But instead, European leaders have been drawn into one of the most agonised debates seen since the eurozone debt crisis erupted nearly two years ago. It has sowed confusion in financial markets and pushed borrowing costs for the third- and fourth-largest eurozone economies – Italy and Spain – to 6 per cent, levels some analysts believe are not sustainable.
The confusion stems from the interlocking, and sometimes conflicting, problems facing European leaders.
Greece’s debt burden – expected to hit 172 per cent of gross domestic product next year – is, for example, so large that it may never get paid. Officials cannot acknowledge this, however, for fear of spooking bondholders into believing default is at hand. Similarly, private investors face political pressure to bear the burden of a new bail-out – but among the largest investors in Greek bonds are Greek banks, which would take huge losses (and need more international aid) if their holdings were cut in value.
“Every time we resolve one issue, two more come up,” says a senior European official involved in the deliberations.
The conflicting problems are compounded by conflicting institutions. Almost every participant in the debate – Athens, the European Central Bank, the IMF, the European Commission and national capitals – holds different and sometimes mutually exclusive interests.
The Frankfurt-based ECB, for instance, is responsible for making sure Europe’s banking sector remains solvent. But the sector (as well as the ECB itself) holds vast quantities of peripheral bonds – meaning any undermining of their value could hit their capitalisation levels, limiting their ability to survive a Lehman-like collapse. The German government, on the other hand, under pressure from the Bundestag, wants some of those banks to accept less than they were originally promised for their bond investments.
The result: Frankfurt and Berlin are at – increasingly tetchy – cross purposes. Can the square be circled? Officials say if it was easy to do, it would have been done by now.
There is intense pressure on the Germans and the Dutch to drop their insistence that bondholders pay a price, a stance that has held up an agreement and led to most of the market panic. But Berlin and the Hague argue that without bondholder participation a new deal will not be credible, since it will not lower Greece’s overall debt burden.
Around and around it goes. With just a day to go before an emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday, European officials say they will get a deal done in time. “There needs to be a very clear political agreement on all the elements,” says the European official. However, the battle to determine the exact nature of that deal will go right to the wire.
PROBLEM 1: THE FIRST RESCUE PACKAGE WAS NOT BIG ENOUGH
Solution: European leaders have agreed in principle to a second bail-out, needed to fill an estimated €115bn hole in Greece’s budget during the next three years.
The first package was too optimistic, particularly on Athens’ ability to return to financial markets to raise money for government operations. Under the current plan, agreed in May last year, Athens was supposed to raise €10.9bn in long-term loans from the bond market in March 2012, and €44.1bn between mid-2011 and mid-2013. With Greek 10-year bonds currently trading with interest rates above 18 per cent, officials have been forced to accept that this is impossible. More bail-out money is needed to fill the gap.
Players Behind the drive for a new bail-out is the International Monetary Fund, whose rules prevent it disbursing aid to a country without ensuring it has all the cash it needs for the next 12 months.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s resignation as IMF chief in May complicated matters. Officials say he had indicated he would be more lenient towards the European Union, and would not require it to quickly agree a new bail-out. But John Lipsky, who as IMF interim head had less political room to manoeuvre, pushed hard for a concrete new plan. George Papandreou, Greek prime minister, formally requested another bail-out late last month.
While the eurozone portion of the current bail-out is funded by loans directly from individual countries, the current and new packages are likely to be combined into a single IMF-EU programme totalling as much as €170bn – with the eurozone contribution coming from the European Financial Stability Facility, the €440bn bail-out fund.
PROBLEM 2: GERMAN, DUTCH AND FINNISH VOTERS ARE AGAINST FUNDING ANOTHER BAIL-OUT
Solution Leaders in all three countries have pushed for private holders of Greek bonds, mostly European banks, to shoulder part of a second bail-out. The original idea, proposed by Germany, was to persuade them to accept a delay in repayment on the €85bn worth of debt due in the next three years.
A more detailed version of this plan, again backed by Germany, would offer bondholders the chance to swap current holdings for new bonds not due for another seven years. Despite the “voluntary” nature of the plan, rating agencies threatened to rule it a “selective default”, as investors would not receive their full returns and officials would probably rely on coercion to win broad participation.
Attention then shifted to a less onerous French-backed alternative, where banks would agree to invest in new Greek bonds as soon as their holdings matured. But rating agencies ruled that this plan would also constitute a default, which sent negotiators for the EU and the banks back to the drawing board.
Players Pressure for private bondholder participation has been led by Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister, and Jan Kees de Jager, his Dutch counterpart. Both governments have promised their parliaments “significant” and “quantifiable” bondholder commitments, despite pressure from bodies such as the European Central Bank to drop the demand.
Leading negotiator for the banks is Charles Dallara, managing director of the Institute of International Finance. In a policy document given to EU leaders last week, he put the French and German plans on a list of possible tacks to which the banks would agree.
PROBLEM 3: GREEK BANKS BEING DRAGGED UNDER BY THE DEBT CRISIS MAY ALSO LOSE EMERGENCY FUNDING
Solution: Highlighting the dual nature of the problem, European officials are working on a two-pronged approach. First, they are trying to tailor the bail-out so that any cut-off of European Central Bank funding would be temporary. They are also discussing plans to inject capital into Greek banks.
The most immediate threat is of a Greek default on its bonds, which would trigger an ECB cut-off. For months Greek banks have relied on the ECB for low-cost loans to run day-to-day operations. But the ECB requires “adequate” collateral – and the banks’ primary form of collateral is Greek bonds, which would be nearly worthless if they were in default. Eurozone officials are looking for ways to conjure up to €20bn in guarantees to enable continued borrowing from the ECB. Alternatively, the ECB may allow the Greek central bank, headed by George Provopoulos, to provide emergency loans.
A default would also probably force international lenders to recapitalise Greek banks as one of their other large sources of capital – Greek debt – would be significantly devalued.
Players Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, has driven this debate with his no-default stand. Others on the ECB’s governing council have been yet more adamant, since there are signs Mr Trichet could relent if even one of the major rating agencies decides against declaring default on whichever plan is adopted.
All Greek banks would probably need a capital injection if there were a bond default but those with particularly large holdings include National Bank of Greece, with a total of €12.9bn; EFG Europank, with €8.7bn; and Piraeus, with €8.1bn.
PROBLEM 4: FEARS OF A GREEK BOND DEFAULT HAVE LED TO A RUN ON SPANISH AND ITALIAN BONDS
Solution: Officials will emphasise that the plan to involve private shareholders in a Greek bail-out is aimed at Athens alone. But it could prove tough to convince investors.
To be fair, some of the panic in Italy is self-inflicted, with prime minister Silvio Berlusconi choosing exactly the wrong moment to pick a public fight with Giulio Tremonti, his respected finance minister. But Spain has been hit hard by “contagion” despite its exemplary implementation of reforms, its spending cuts and the overhaul of its banking system.
The cause of investor concern is the debate over Greece. If European leaders have reached the point at which they are actively considering defaults and debt restructurings for Greece, what is to stop them doing the same for Ireland and Portugal – which have also been bailed out – or for Italy and Spain? Moody’s, the rating agency, stated when it recently downgraded Irish and Portuguese debt that the shift in European attitudes towards defaults was a primary motivator in their decision.
Players Moody’s and the other leading rating agencies, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s, will play a significant role in deciding whether EU efforts to convince markets private bondholder participation is limited to Greece is credible.
Italian and Spanish officials believe they have done as much as they can to reassure investors – including rushing through a €47bn Italian austerity programme in recent days – and are hoping a quick decision on the specifics of a Greek bail-out at the Brussels summit on Thursday will end the assault on their sovereign bonds. Mr Berlusconi’s spat with Mr Tremonti continues to cause concern, however.
PROBLEM 5: ATHENS’ DEBT BURDEN IS TOO BIG TO BE PAID OFF
Solution: The overall Greek debt burden stands at €350bn. The most significant new suggestion for reducing it is to use the European Financial Stability Fund to finance a large bond buy-back plan – a scheme that could also be adopted by Ireland and Portugal. Although the EFSF does not have the power to conduct such a plan, it could lend Greece the funds to make the purchases itself.
Because Greek debt currently trades significantly below face value, investors would take a “voluntary” loss when selling their bonds in a buy-back – but would at least receive something for their investment. In return, Athens would retire the bonds and cut its debt burden. As Greek bonds are now trading at about 60 per cent of face value, a €30bn buy-back programme could wipe €50bn off the balance sheet.
Germany, which has long resisted this plan, looks ready to concede. It also looks more conciliatory on another point: lowering the rates Ireland, Portugal and Greece pay on their EFSF bail-out loans. Originally, all bailed-out countries had to pay 300 basis points above the EFSF’s cost of borrowing, a punitive rate meant to discourage bail-outs.
Players Mr Trichet has been pushing to use the EFSF for bond buy-backs, and has supporters within the European Commission, especially Olli Rehn, the EU’s most senior economic official. Mr Rehn, backed by José Manuel Barroso, commission president, is also a prime advocate for lower interest rates.
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister, would be making a significant climbdown if they backed the bond-buying scheme since they fiercely resisted it six months ago.