Photographer: Yorgos Karahalis /Bloomberg

Greece Applauded for Budget Cuts as Investors Warm to Its Bills

Updated on
  • EU acknowledges that Greece put its budget house in order
  • Move comes as government mulls testing bond market waters

Greece’s budget has been formally declared compliant with with European Union budget standards, bolstering the nation that received its latest round of rescue aid earlier this week, as it mulls its first bond sale since 2014.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, announced that it will recommend the removal of its so-called excessive deficit procedure for Greece, a step taken when a member state’s budgetary shortfall gets too big, according to a statement on Wednesday.

While largely symbolic, the decision marks an important step for Greece, which has been relying on international bailouts to stay afloat since 2010, as it seeks to return to normality and regain market access. Adding to signs of a brightening outlook, foreign investors bought 59 percent of the 812.5 million euros ($928 million) of three-month treasury bills the government sold on Wednesday.

“Our recommendation to close the excessive deficit procedure for Greece is another positive signal of financial stability and economic recovery in the country,” Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Union commissioner in charge of financial-services policy, said in the statement. “I invite Greece to build on its achievements and continue to strengthen confidence in its economy, which is important for Greece to prepare its return to the financial markets.”

The recommendation, which has to be approved by EU governments, has no practical implications, as Greece’s fiscal targets are dictated by its bailout program, which prevails over EU rules. But the official recognition that Athens has gotten its finances in order and is no longer in breach of EU rules adds to a series of positive news surrounding the country and its bailout.

Bond Sale

The commission’s decision is one more step toward the exit from the crisis, Greece said in an emailed statement. “The government stays the course committed to a definitive exit from the support program in August 2018,” the prime minister’s office said.

Athens is considering tapping the markets in the coming days or weeks to take advantage of the positive sentiment. The bid-to-cover ratio in its Wednesday T-Bills auction was 1.85, the highest since January 2015 -- when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was first elected. The yield of 2.33 percent was the lowest since that month.

Crucially, the purchase of a majority of the bills by non-domestic investors may be a harbinger of a new issue after a three-year hiatus. Greek bonds have out-performed all other European sovereigns this year, as tensions with its euro-area creditors eased, and the risk of a default waned.

Yields on 2-year notes fell 8 basis points to 3.63 percent at 6:15 p.m. in Athens on Wednesday. At the height of the financial crisis in 2012, with a real possibility of the country leaving the euro area, the yield on 10-year bonds surged to a record 44.21 percent.

Recovery Milestone

The Commission’s decision also marks a milestone for the EU: if Greece exits the procedure, only three countries would remain under its so-called corrective arm -- France, Spain and the U.K. -- down from 24 countries during the financial crisis in 2011.

EU rules stipulate that countries are supposed to limit budget deficits to 3 percent of gross domestic product and keep their debt ratios below 60 percent. Greece’s deficit has been reduced from a peak of 15.1 percent of gross domestic product in 2009 to a surplus of 0.7 percent of GDP in 2016.

Euro-area finance ministers agreed last month that Greece had undertaken enough economic reforms to get 8.5 billion euros ($9.7 billion) in additional financial aid under its 86 billion-euro bailout, while offering more clarity on what future debt relief for the crisis-ridden state could entail

Under the terms of its bailout, the country must sustain a primary surplus -- which excludes interest payments -- of 3.5 percent of GDP until 2022, and stabilize around 2 percent in the medium term.

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