Europe weighs options for new Greek package

BERLIN/VIENNA: European officials met on Tuesday to sketch out options for a second bailout package for Greece, with private sector participation still under discussion to help relieve the country of its massive debt burden.

Senior EU finance officials gathered in Vienna to prepare the ground for more high-level talks on the Greek debt crisis. Sources said a range of policy steps were on the table, including a “Vienna Initiative”-style debt rollover and bond maturity extensions.

Greece faces a funding gap of over 60 billion euros in 2012 and 2013. Any private sector involvement is likely to form part of a broader package of measures to fill that hole, including aggressive privatizations, fresh austerity pledges from Athens and new aid from the European Union and the IMF.

Ratings agency Fitch said in a report Tuesday that Greece’s official lenders needed to put up 90-100 billion euros to give it sufficient time to implement reforms and cut debt.

It said Greece’s ability to deliver on its fiscal promises in the face of rising opposition from the public and political opposition was “increasingly in doubt.”

Underscoring the domestic obstacles, Greece’s conservative opposition said a deal between the government and visiting European and IMF inspectors to cut value-added taxes in a bid to win their support was “not good enough.”

Greece’s opposition have demanded lower taxes as a condition for reaching a consensus with the socialist government on further austerity measures, which Brussels says is essential to secure any further assistance.

The euro rose above $1.44 to reach its highest level in over two weeks on growing confidence that a deal for Greece would be sealed, before dipping slightly on reports that Germany and other countries were insistent on private sector involvement.

Markets have grown increasingly skeptical in recent weeks about the ability of policymakers to solve Greece’s debt woes because of rising reluctance from countries like Germany, Finland and the Netherlands to provide more aid, as well as new demands by the IMF that Europe commit to long-term guarantees for Greece before it releases more funds.

Late on Monday, however, the chairman of eurozone finance ministers, Jean-Claude Juncker, expressed optimism that a new package was coming together.

Two European sources involved in the negotiations said the Economic and Financial Committee of senior EU finance ministry officials was meeting in Vienna on Tuesday to thrash out options for private sector involvement in a new Greek deal.

They stressed the meeting was preparing the ingredients for a political decision – a sort of “a la carte menu,” where ministers would remain free to choose only dishes they liked.

The range of options under discussion were loosely based on the January 2009 Vienna Initiative on financial stability in central and eastern Europe, agreed by international financial institutions, the European Commission and ECB, key EU governments and commercial bankers.

Under that pact, the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development all agreed to boost credit to the region, the EU agreed to double its balance-of-payments facility for non-eurozone member states, and crucially the main commercial banks agreed to maintain their CEE exposure and roll over credit lines.

The Vienna Initiative was widely credited with preventing a financial meltdown around the region after Hungary took an IMF-led bailout, at a time when western banks faced pressure to repatriate capital to cover losses incurred in the wake of the sub-prime crisis and the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

“There might be a component of a Vienna Initiative type,” one source involved in the EFC talks said. “There is no agreed definition yet of what that would mean, but there is discussion of what it would take.”

The second source said the options included a voluntary agreement by banks to maintain their exposure to Greece for the duration of a new three-year adjustment program, to extend the maturities of existing bonds or roll over maturing debt.

The source suggested the ECB could live with such a “voluntary” involvement of the private sector without refusing Greek bonds as collateral, but said it was only likely to give its assent at the last minute having seen the entire package.

A summit of EU leaders, preceded by a meeting of eurozone finance ministers, is scheduled for late June.

Greece took a 110 billion euro ($158 billion) rescue package from the EU and IMF last May, but has struggled to meet most of the fiscal goals set out for it as part of that deal.

With a debt mountain of nearly 330 billion euros at the end of last year, many economists believe it will be difficult for it to avoid a restructuring at some point in the future.

But the ECB has warned against any form of restructuring, a message reinforced Tuesday by Executive Board Member Gertrude Tumpel-Gugerell.

Inspectors from the so-called “troika” are in Athens to decide whether to release a tranche of 12 billion euros that Athens needs next month to avoid an immediate default. In part due to IMF demands, discussions on a new package that would meet Greece’s needs through 2014 are taking place in the background.

EU officials said that package, expected to total around 65 billion euros, could involve a mixture of collateralized loans from the EU and IMF, and additional revenue measures, with unprecedented external supervision of Greece’s privatization program.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 01, 2011, on page 5.




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