ECB Said to Remain Opposed to Losses on Its Greek Debt

A senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government rejected suggestions that the European Central Bank take losses on its Greek debt holdings, backing the ECB in a dispute with the International Monetary Fund.

“I can’t imagine that European politicians would allow third parties to make such an indecent claim on our central bank,” Michael Meister, the deputy floor leader for Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the party’s ranking finance spokesman, said today in an interview. “That contradicts our philosophy.”

While the ECB faces pressure to join private-sector investors in accepting losses on Greek debt, the central bank sees any participation as risking damaging confidence in the institution, two people familiar with the Governing Council’s stance said. The debt was acquired for monetary policy purposes and the ECB is firmly opposed to any restructuring, they said on condition of anonymity because the matter is confidential.

Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister who is the IMF’s managing director, told reporters in Paris today that European governments and other public holders of Greek debt may have to increase support if private creditors don’t go far enough. Talks on a Greek debt swap that must be resolved to free up more aid for the debt-wracked nation have yet to be concluded.

“The risk is that by putting the ECB on board, as the IMF asks, this could result in debt-swap negotiations restarting from scratch, which could mean additional delay to an already over-stretched timetable,” said Thomas Costerg, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank in London.

Greek Talks

Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said it would be a “good idea” for the ECB to accept losses on Greek bonds.

“We always proposed this should be done and it will also help create an atmosphere of equal treatment,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview today. “The ECB bought these bonds at a discount and I think at least this discount could be accrued in favor of Greece.”

ECB President Mario Draghi said on Jan. 19 that the ECB is “not party” to ongoing discussions between the Greek government and the private sector. The ECB is in talks regarding a potential swap of its Greek bonds that would ease the country’s debt load and avoid losses at the central bank, the New York Times reported today, citing unnamed officials.

An ECB spokesman declined to comment.

Deeper Losses

Meister urged private bondholders to reach a deal, saying that it is “in the interest of private holders of Greek bonds to accept the terms of a writedown.”

Greek bondholders meet today in Paris to discuss their response to European officials’ demands that they take deeper losses on their holdings of Greek debt to help bring the nation’s borrowings to a sustainable level.

Institute of International Finance Managing Director Charles Dallara, who’s negotiating on behalf of the bondholders, said yesterday that all parties, public and private, should contribute to cutting Greece’s debt. Dallara said that private investors hold only about 60 percent of Greece’s 350 billion euros ($454 billion) of debt. The IIF is a Washington-based industry group with more than 450 members.

“It is important for all parties to recognize how much we all have at stake here and work together and cooperatively to find a solution,” Dallara told reporters in Zurich. “Some might minimize the risk of an involuntary debt exchange and point to other cases such as Argentina. I would caution against that attitude.”

Latest Offer

European officials and Greece’s private bondholders agreed in October to implement a 50 percent cut in the face value of more than 200 billion euros of debt by voluntarily exchanging outstanding bonds for new securities, with a goal of reducing Greece’s borrowings to 120 percent of gross domestic product by 2020. The accord is tied to a second financing package for the cash-strapped country, which faces a 14.5 billion-euro bond payment on March 20.

The latest offer from the IIF would lead to a loss of about 69 percent on the net-present value of Greek bonds, two people with knowledge of the talks said. The new 30-year bonds would carry an average coupon of about 4.25 percent, said the people, who declined to be identified because the talks are private.

“If the level of Greece’s privately held debt is not sufficiently renegotiated, then public creditors, holders of Greek debt, will also have to participate in the financial effort,” Lagarde told journalists in Paris.

ECB Guarantee

European finance ministers meeting in Brussels signaled they would push Greece’s private investors to accept bigger losses, with coupons below 3.5 percent for debt to be serviced until 2020 and below 4 percent over the 30 years of the next Greek package.

The ECB has opposed any “involuntary” restructuring of Greek debt that would trigger the payment of credit default swaps, and extracted a 35 billion-euro guarantee for bonds held as collateral on its books from European governments last year.

Asking private investors to take a loss on Greek holdings has proved “costly for the euro zone” as it sends a message that “euro zone sovereign debt should no longer be considered a safe asset with the implicit promise that it would be repaid in full,” ECB Governing Council member Athanasios Orphanides wrote in the Financial Times on Jan. 5, calling for the plan to be jettisoned.

ECB Holdings

The ECB began buying Greek government debt in May 2010 as the sovereign debt crisis flared, saying the move was needed to maintain the transmission of monetary policy as bond yields soared. It now holds about 36 billion euros of the nation’s bonds, Barclays Capital estimated in a Jan. 6 report.

Greece’s creditors won’t help the country get a handle on its debt by taking losses on sovereign bonds, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. Greece’s debt load will be “unbearably high” even if public creditors join investors in taking 50 percent writedowns, the institute, which advises the German government, said in a study published on its website.


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