EU May Accept Greek Default as Crisis Fight Intensifies
Euro-area leaders redoubled efforts to end the 21-month sovereign bond crisis as they erected a firewall around Spain and Italy and risked temporary default to lighten Greece’s debt burden.
After eight hours of talks in Brussels, leaders announced 159 billion euros ($229 billion) of new aid for Greece late yesterday and cajoled bondholders into footing part of the bill. They also empowered their 440-billion euro rescue fund to buy debt across stressed euro nations after a market rout last week sparked concern the crisis was spreading. The fund can also aid troubled banks and offer credit-lines to repel speculators.
Greek, Spanish and Italian bonds rose after officials drew concessions from Germany, the European Central Bank and investors for a twin-track strategy to support Greece and ensure its woes don’t spread. The summit is the latest in a running- battle to resolve the crisis amid calls this week for tougher action from U.S. President Barack Obama and the International Monetary Fund.
“These measures are welcome because they create the best possible conditions for Greece and other peripheral countries to put their houses in order and hence limit the risk of contagion,” said Marco Valli, chief euro-area economist at UniCredit SpA in Milan. “Still, the market will continue to price some probability that troubled countries will not be up to the challenge.”
The yield on Greece’s two-year government note, which rose above 40 percent yesterday, has since plunged more than 1,300 basis points and was at 26.63 percent at 12:13 p.m. in Brussels.
Italian and Spanish bonds climbed for a fourth day, with the yields on 10-year debt falling to 5.25 percent and 5.62 percent, respectively. Both exceeded 6 percent last week. The euro was little changed at $1.4410 after jumping as much as 1.6 percent yesterday.
The Greek financing package will consist of 109 billion euros from the euro region and the IMF. Financial institutions will contribute 50 billion euros after agreeing to a series of bond exchanges and buybacks that will also cut Greece’s debt load, the leaders’ communiqué said.
The European Commission plans to brief reporters on the package’s technical details at 1 p.m. in Brussels.
European Monetary Fund
The leaders sought to regain the initiative after market turmoil intensified amid a spat between ECB President Jean- Claude Trichet and German Chancellor Angela Merkel over how to manage the crisis. The outlook was worsened by signs that Greece was backsliding on axing its budget deficit as it struggles to cut a debt of 143 percent of gross domestic product. A Bank of America Merrill Lynch poll this week showed investors trimming their European stock holdings to the lowest in more than a year.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy compared the transformation of the bailout fund to the creation of a “European Monetary Fund.”
“This meeting came at a difficult time,” Merkel told reporters. “I’m satisfied with the outcome because the euro countries showed today that we are up to the challenge, we can take action.”
The risk is that the drive will fall prey to the same internal European Union wrangling that blunted previous drives to stop the crisis. Bond purchases by the European Financial Stability Facility, the region’s rescue fund, will need the “mutual agreement” of member states and the facility may not be large enough should markets turn on Italy and Spain at the same time. Leaders also refused to increase its size.
“The EFSF has gone from being a single-barreled gun to a Gatling gun, but with the same amount of ammo,” Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citigroup Inc., told Maryam Nemazee on Bloomberg Television. “It needs to be increased in size urgently.”
Sarkozy and other leaders also stressed that the Greek package won’t be replicated for other countries.
European officials tried to draw a line under the crisis in May 2010 when they set up the bailout fund and the ECB agreed to buy government bonds of debt-laden nations. That didn’t stop Ireland and Portugal needing bailouts when splits over how to make investors participate in financial rescues prompted a new wave of bond market selling later in the year.
The pact still doesn’t “make a significant dent” in Greece’s debt and may disappoint investors by failing to boost the size of the rescue fund, said Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London. “We doubt that this package alone will bring an end to recent contagion effects and prevent the broader debt crisis from continuing to deepen over the coming months.”
For now, Merkel and her allies have succeeded in their drive to make investors co-finance bailouts after voters balked at the cost of saving spendthrift nations.
“The summit resolutions fulfill the main elements of German coalition lawmakers’ demands, above all the participation of the private sector in solving this crisis,” Hans Michelbach, a lawmaker in Merkel’s ruling coalition, said in a telephone interview. “I see that a majority of coalition lawmakers will support Mrs. Merkel in parliament.”
Banks will reduce Greece’s debt by 13.5 billion euros by exchanging bonds and “potentially much more” through a buyback program still to be outlined by governments, said the Institute of International Finance, a Washington-based group representing banks.
Investors will have the option to exchange existing Greek debt into four instruments. Three will be fully collateralized by AAA-rated zero-coupon securities and have a 30-year maturity, and the fourth will be for 15 years and partially collateralized by funds held in an escrow account.
Crisis managers are aiming for a 90 percent participation rate from Greek bondholders.
“With this offer, the global investor community is stepping forward in recognition of the unique challenges facing Greece,” said IIF Managing Director Charles Dallara. The gathering was also attended by Deutsche Bank AG Chief Executive Officer Josef Ackermann and BNP Paribas SA counterpart Baudouin Prot.
The ECB removed an obstacle to a new bailout after Trichet softened his opposition to a default which may be declared by credit rating companies if the debt swap occurs. The ECB had until now said the euro region’s first sovereign default could spark a bout of financial turmoil, clashing with Merkel’s position that a default could be inevitable.
Trichet signaled governments will guarantee any defaulted Greek debt offered as collateral during money market operations. That may enable Greek banks to keep tapping the ECB for emergency funds. Officials said the aim would be limit any credit event to a few days.
“The ECB pushed the argument as far as it could,” said Laurent Bilke, an economist at Nomura International Plc in London who used to work at the ECB. “It is Europe, everything is a compromise.”
Under the plan, Greece and fellow bailout recipients Portugal and Ireland will also have the interest rate on emergency loans pared. Maturities will be lengthened to as long as three decades with a 10-year grace period.
Trichet may gain solace from the bailout fund’s wider remit which he repeatedly sought since the ECB suspended its own bond buying program in April amid concern it was doing the work of governments. Germany previously rejected broadening the EFSF, whose size was beefed up to its original lending target as recently as last month.
The facility will be able to buy debt directly from investors so long as creditors agree and the ECB declares “exceptional financial market circumstances.” EU President Herman Van Rompuy said the purchases could be used to stabilize markets as the ECB was doing or to help countries retire debt at a discount.
The fund may also start passing money to countries to support banks a week after stress tests on 90 financial institutions put as many as 24 under pressure to show they can raise capital. Precautionary credit lines would allow it to lend to nations before markets freeze, mimicking a system introduced by the IMF for states that start losing investor faith even though they have relatively sound economies.
Governments will have to ratify the facility’s new powers, posing a potential obstacle given domestic critics in Germany, Finland and the Netherlands.
Leaders dumped a suggestion to finance Greek aid through a tax on banks with a French official noting the threat had nudged banks into agreeing to help in other ways. While they signaled no shift toward issuing joint bonds, Germany’s Deputy Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer said in an interview on July 20 that it may eventually back the concept “if we further develop the European Union towards a political union.”
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