Monday, August 03, 2015

The great Greek fudge

Published by Vocal International and Zero Hedge

A third Greek bailout involving loans from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the eurozone’s bailout scheme, is now being negotiated. The start was quite rocky, with haggling over the precise location in Athens where negotiations need to take place and Greek officials once again withholding information to creditors. Therefore, few still believe that it will be possible to conclude a deal in time for Greece to repay 3.2 billion euro to the ECB on 20 August. Several national Parliaments in the Eurozone would need to approve a final deal, which would necessitate calling their members back from recess around two   weeks before the 20th, so it’s weird that French EU Commissioner Pierre Moscovici still seems so confident that the deadline can be met.

If indeed there is no deal, Greece is likely to request a second so-called “bridge loan” to allow it to pay the ECB, firmly within the Eurozone tradition of the creditor providing the debtor cash in order to pay back the creditor. France, which is most eager to keep Greece inside the Eurozone, is afraid that bilateral bridge loans from Eurozone countries wouldn’t be approved by the more critical member states, as this would risk France having to foot this bill on its own, perhaps with Italy. Not exactly a rosy prospect for socialist French President Hollande, who’s already struggling to contain the far right anti-euro formation Front National.

The only European fund practically available to provide a bridge loan is the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism (EFSM), a fund created in May 2010, which has been raising 60 billion euro on the markets, with the EU’s €1 trillion Budget as collateral. The EFSM belongs not just to Eurozone member states, but to all EU member states. How on earth did the UK, which isn’t part of the Eurozone, agree to bail it out in 2010, one may wonder? The reason is that the decision to create the EFSM was taking precisely at the time of the power vacuum in the UK. Labour had just lost the election and the Conservatives were still busy negotiating a coalition with the Lib Dems. Outgoing Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling claimed to have “consulted” likely new Chancellor George Osborne, but it remains muddy who precisely gave the expensive OK. In order to correct this, PM Cameron secured a declaration from other EU leaders in December 2010 that the fund wasn’t going to be used any longer, until it was used after all, in July 2015, to provide Greece with a first bridge loan. Then not only the UK, but also the Czech Republic and Poland protested heavily, only backing down when they secured special guarantees against possible losses and a commitment that it would be illegal in the future to provide loans to Eurozone countries with the EFSM without also providing such guarantees to non-euro states.

EU Finance Ministers are currently busy implementing the legal change, through a “written procedure”, which should be finalized before the middle of August. The Council declared in July that an “agreement” on this legal change was needed “in any case before” Greece can request a second bridge loan. Another “written procedure” is needed for that, but it’s unlikely that Finance Ministers will manage to decide this in smoke-filled rooms. With Polish elections coming up on 25 October, local opposition parties may once again rail against Polish PM Ewa Kopacz, who promised voters they wouldn’t be exposed to this. Also the UK may use this as an opportunity to extract concessions related to its own agenda for EU reform. Perhaps the French government’s sudden openness to this agenda and its welcome stance that “we need a fair treatment of the 'out' countries" may have been linked to the British approval for a first bridge loan.

As always in the Eurozone, the safest bet is on another fudge, at least when it comes to the bridge loan.

More questionable is how the IMF’s statement that it “cannot reach staff-level agreement [to participate to a third Greek bailout] at this stage” will play out, given that Greece no longer meets two of the four IMF criteria for a bailout: ability/willingness to implement reform and debt sustainability. It will only decide whether to take part in the bailout after Greece has “agreed on a comprehensive set of reforms” and after the Eurozone has “agreed on debt relief”, meaning it may even only join next year or not at all, of course. This is a problem, given that a number of Eurozone states, especially Germany and the Netherlands, have explicitly linked their willingness for a third Greek bailout to participation by the IMF. Former EU Commissioner for Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn has suggested that many countries demand IMF involvement in bailouts because they don't trust the Commission.

It’s not entirely clear what will be sufficient for the IMF: its President, Christine Lagarde, has discussed a write-down on the value of the country’s debt but ruled out a straight “haircut”, while mentioning an extension of debt maturities, an extension of grace periods and a maximum reduction of interest rates. The IMF carries the legacy of its former Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who managed to overcome opposition within the fund against taking part in the first Greek bailout in 2010. The IMF only issues loans to countries when there is prospect for debt sustainability, which clearly wasn’t the case for Greece in 2010, but the interests of supposedly “systemic” banks were considered to be more important. Now the IMF, which has never taken straight losses on loans it has issued, may be experiencing this in case of Grexit.

As opposed to the IMF, which has completely ruled out the idea of taking losses on its lending to Greece, and contrary to the picture painted by some, Germany has made some noices suggesting it may be open to cutting its losses in Greece. German Chancellor Merkel has not only been open to extending debt maturities and lowering interest rates, but her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said that “if you think the best way for Greece" is debt relief, then "the best way forward" is to leave the euro, adding that “a real debt haircut isn’t compatible with the membership of the currency union”. So Germany is willing to accept debt relief, if there is Grexit.
Some have questioned Schäuble’s claim that debt relief wouldn’t be legally banned within the eurozone, as for example Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau, who recently wrote: “In its landmark Pringle ruling — relating to an Irish case in 2012 — the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said bailouts are fine, even under Article 125, as long as the purpose of the bailout is to render the fiscal position of the recipient country sustainable in the long run.”

This sounds a bit like a stretch. The ESM is very much conceived as a “European IMF”, hence the ECJ’s use of the term “sustainable”, reminiscent of the IMF’s condition to provide cash. Just like the IMF, the ESM has been set up to issue “loans”, not to provide “transfers”. Obviously, a loan with an artificially low interest rate partly counts as a “transfer”, but even for the rather politicized judges of the European Court of Justice there is an end to stretching the meaning of words.

Therefore, apart from the case where the ECJ would completely remove the meaning of the words of its previous rulings and the ESM Treaty, EU law doesn’t allow the “loans” made to Greece to just be forgiven, as much as proponents of a Eurozone transfer union like Mr. Munchau may regret this.
After PM Tsipras threatened with an internal referendum in his own left-wing populist Syriza party, it looks like he has secured the necessary domestic support for a third Greek bailout.

Obstacles remain, but much of the protest in “creditor countries” seem to have been overcome. In Finland, where the coalition was at risk at some point, Foreign Minister Timo Soini has said that it “would make no sense” for his Eurosceptic Finns party to leave the Finnish coalition over this. In the Netherlands, the governing VVD party, which is skeptical to the Greek deal, has provided tacit consent for negotiations to start. In Germany, despite all the noice, Merkel enjoys a comfortable majority to get on with the third range of transfers.

The third bailout is likely not to be sufficient to cover all Greek funding needs in the next few years, also given that expecting 50 billion euro from privatizing Greek state assets looks a little rosy. This is a problem which can be solved near the end of the bailout period, once Greece has made it through the difficult year 2015. In 2016 and 2017, the country needs to make debt repayments “only” amounting to around 6 billion euro each year.

The IMF may in the end just back down and join in, given how it already bent its rules twice to agree to Greek bailouts. It would have been expected to provide between 10% and a third of the funding of the new bailout which may amount to 86 billion euro (and possibly more), so if the IMF wouldn’t back down, Germany and France would see their bill for the third bailout rise with another 1.7 billion and 1.3 billion euro respectively. A lot will depend on how the IMF will calculate “debt sustainaibility”. Speaking in the Dutch Parliament, Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on 16 July that the Eurozone already “agreed with the IMF to look at "debt service", not merely at the debt to GDP levels”. In other words: because Greece’s interest burden as a percentage of GDP is even lower than the one carried by Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain, one can ignore the fact that its debt to GDP is at the horrendous level of 180% now. This of course overlooks the difficulty to boost that GDP, given the tax hikes and the capital controls which will be hard to remove as a result of the talk about “Grexit”. Still, a fudge looks on the cards.

It isn’t a good idea to let the bill of Eurozone taxpayers grow even bigger, to burden an economy already crippled by debt with even more debt and to intervene deeply into domestic Greek policy choices. Opting for Grexit may have been the wisest choice for everyone. The opportunity was there, given that many Greeks had already taken their savings out of banks anyway. Also, many of the reasons to think Greece still may leave the Eurozone, like the difficulty to unwind capital controls, remain in place. We have come close, but Grexit seems to have been avoided for now. But it’s unlikely to have been referred “ad kalendas Graecas”- "until pigs can fly".

Pieter Cleppe represents independent think tank Open Europe in Brussels

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