EU Given a Week to Fix Crisis as G-20 Warns of Global Threat
European leaders have one week to settle differences and flesh out a strategy to terminate their sovereign debt crisis as global finance chiefs warn failure to do so would endanger the world economy.
Group of 20 finance ministers and central banks concluded weekend talks in Paris endorsing parts of the emerging plan to avoid a Greek default, bolster banks and curb contagion. They set an Oct. 23 summit of European leaders in Brussels as the deadline for it to be delivered.
“The risk of a recession would be increased dramatically were the Europeans to fail to accomplish goals that they’ve set for themselves,” Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said after the G-20 meeting, which ended Oct. 15.
Two years to the week since Greece triggered the turmoil by revising its budget math, the inability of policy makers to stamp it out has pushed the Greek government to the edge of default and the European economy close to recession. Stocks and the euro extended last week’s gains after the meeting.
Hurdles to overcome for an accord include resistance from bankers to a deeper restructuring of Greek debt as well as disagreements between Europe’s capitals over just how to multiply the firepower of their bailout fund and recapitalize financial institutions. Greece’s parliament faces another tight vote on new fiscal measures as soon as this week, a showdown that Prime Minister George Papandreou needs to win to ease the way for more foreign financing.
The Brussels meeting “has the potential to turn into a positive historic moment,” Joachim Fels, London-based chief economist at Morgan Stanley, wrote in a note to clients yesterday. “But it could also easily turn into a negative catalyst.”
Europe’s plan, which has still to be made public, includes writing down Greek bonds by as much as 50 percent, establishing a backstop for banks and magnifying the strength of the 440 billion-euro ($611 billion) temporary rescue fund known as the European Financial Stability Facility, people familiar with the matter said last week.
“The plan has the right elements,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said in Paris. “They clearly have more work to do on the strategy and the details.”
The G-20 officials -- who met to prepare for a Nov. 3-4 gathering of leaders in Cannes, France -- said in a statement that the world economy faces “heightened tensions and significant downside risks.” European authorities must “decisively address the current challenges through a comprehensive plan,” they said.
The policy makers held out the possibility of rewarding European action with more aid from the International Monetary Fund, while splitting over whether the Washington-based lender’s $390 billion war chest needs topping up.
Europe’s latest strategy hinges on putting Greece, whose government forecasts its debt to reach 172 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, on a sustainable path. Austerity has plunged the country deeper into recession and provoked civil unrest that threatens political stability.
Papandreou faces the latest test of his party’s unity as soon as this week when he asks Parliament to approve steps including bigger pension and wage cuts as well as plans that may lead to the dismissal of 30,000 state workers. One ruling party lawmaker, Thomas Robopoulos, said he may quit his seat ahead of the vote, exposing the tensions in Papandreou’s socialist party. It has 154 seats in the 300-member chamber.
Failure to limit the risk of a default to Greece led to Portugal and Ireland requiring bailouts, and markets are now targeting larger debt-strapped nations such as Italy. Investors are concerned that if the crisis keeps festering, the world economy could face a repeat of the chaos that followed the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEHMQ) The euro area is already set to suffer a renewed recession, say economists at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
In the works is a five-point plan foreseeing a fix for Greece, boosting of the rescue fund, fresh capital for banks, a new push to increase competitiveness and consideration of European treaty amendments to tighten economic management.
Proposals include revising a voluntary July accord struck with investors for a 21 percent net-present-value reduction in Greek debt holdings. One variant would take that reduction up to 50 percent, and a more aggressive suggestion is for investors to exchange Greek bonds for new debt at a lower face value collateralized by the euro area’s AAA-rated rescue fund, the people said. The ultimate choice is a restructuring involving writedowns without collateral.
Highlighting potential opposition from bankers this week, Charles Dallara, managing director of the Institute of International Finance, told the Financial Times in an article published Oct. 15 that he doesn’t “see a compelling case” to reopen the July deal. The imposition of greater losses on investors may prompt them to sell other European bonds, he said. The European Central Bank has also signaled it doesn’t favor a rewrite of the three-month old accord.
The bank-aid model under discussion is to set up a European-level backstop capitalized by the EFSF, the people said. It would have the power to take direct equity stakes in banks and provide guarantees on bank liabilities. Such ideas are controversial in Germany, which has called for recapitalization on a country-by-country basis.
European Union Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn told Bloomberg Television on Oct. 15 that euro-area authorities are “close” to a pact. Banks may be required to maintain a 9 percent capital buffer to absorb sovereign risks, up from the 5 percent core capital level used in July’s stress tests, a person with knowledge of discussions said last week.
How to magnify the strength of the EFSF may also sow discord this week. Options include enabling it to borrow from the ECB or using it to partly insure new bonds issued by distressed governments. The ECB has all but ruled out the first method, making bond guarantees more likely, the people said.
The guarantees of new bonds sold by distressed euro-area governments might range from 20 percent to 30 percent, a person familiar with those deliberations said.
Recourse to bond insurance suggests the central bank will need to maintain its secondary-market purchases for an unspecified “interim” period, the people said. ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet, who attended his last G-20 meeting before he retires Oct. 31, reiterated the central bank hopes to stop purchasing government bonds once the EFSF is able to take over.
A consensus is nevertheless emerging to accelerate the birth of a permanent aid fund by a year to July 2012. This week’s discussions will also look at easing unanimity rules that permit solitary countries to block bailouts.
Morgan Stanley’s Fels said the steps could backfire because investors may fail to be lured by the guarantees, harsher writedowns could spark contagion and banks would likely prefer to sell assets and reduce leverage than raise capital. What’s really required is leaders to take a “big step” toward fiscal integration, he said.
The coming weekend “is the moment people are expecting something quite impressive,” U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in Paris.