Fiscal policy

Peter Spiegel

Rehn during last month's presentation of the Commission's winter economic forecasts.

Following yesterday’s barrage from the European Commission, Princeton economist Paul Krugman today ratcheted up his criticism of the way policy is made in Brussels, arguing that the attacks demonstrate EU officials are more “focused on defending their dignity from sharp-tongued economists” than on getting economic policy right.

Krugman’s latest fusillade, titled “Of Cockroaches and Commissioners”, notes that despite the occasionally personal nature of the attacks against him from the Berlaymont, he never made a personal attack on Olli Rehn, the Commission’s economic chief:

What you would never grasp from those outraged tweets is that all my criticisms have been substantive. I never asserted that Mr. Rehn’s mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries; I pointed out that he has been promising good results from austerity for years, without changing his rhetoric a bit despite ever-rising unemployment, and that his response to studies suggesting larger adverse effects from austerity than he and his colleagues had allowed for was to complain that such studies undermine confidence.

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Peter Spiegel

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, during a visit to Brussels in 2009.

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has in recent weeks emerged as something of a bête noir for EU economic chief Olli Rehn, singling out the understated Finn as the symbol of the austerity-led eurozone crisis response that Krugman blames for exacerbating Europe’s economic recession.

Last week, after “browsing through the collected speeches of Olli Rehn”, who he declares “the face of denialism when it comes to the effects of austerity”, he criticised the European Commission vice president for arguing that budgetary tightening is the reason for the recent eurozone market calm, when Krugman believes it was more European Central Bank action.

That followed a particularly nasty attack a few days earlier at what Krugman labelled a “Rehn of Terror”, saying that Rehn’s repeated predictions that economic growth was returning was misleading – and taking Rehn to task for a letter to EU finance ministers in which he said the recent academic debate over austerity and growth “has not been helpful”. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Monti casts his vote in this week's Italian parliamentary elections.

Just 48 hours after receiving a drubbing at the polls, outgoing Italian prime minister Mario Monti came to Brussels and delivered his first major address since the election, in which he issued a dire warning to other leaders attempting to reform their countries in the midst of a deepening recession: what just happened to me can happen to you.

Monti’s remarks, which appeared off the cuff, came at the end of a detailed review of Italian and EU competition policy as part of a conference Thursday hosted by Joaquin Almunia, one of Monti’s successors as EU competition commissioner.

Monti warned that because economies take a long time to grow after implementing tough austerity and economic reform measures, public opinion quickly turns against the policies and the result is “the coming up of political forces that, of course, oppose the right policies” – a not-so-veiled reference to the Five Star Movement of Italian populist Beppe Grillo, which well outpolled Monti’s coalition in this week’s vote. Read more

Peter Spiegel

As we note in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, the European Commission is out with its latest assessment of Portugal’s €78bn bailout. But buried in the report is a two-page box that raises the intriguing question of whether the bailout is actually bigger than leaders have disclosed.

In its small print, the box – soporifically titled “Euro Area and IMF Loans: Amounts, Terms and Conditions” – makes pretty clear that Portugal’s bailout will actually be closer to €82.2bn (we’ve posted the box here). Elsewhere, another table (posted here) says it’s actually €79.5bn.

Why the sudden increase? About €1.8bn of the rise is pretty straight forward. The International Monetary Fund, which is responsible for one-third of the total bailout funding, doesn’t pay its bailout aid in euros. Instead, it uses something called Special Drawing Rights, or SDRs, which have a value all of their own.

Because an SDR’s value fluctuates based on a weighted average of four currencies – the euro, the US dollar, the British pound and the Japanese yen – the 23.7bn in SDRs that was worth €26bn when the Portuguese bailout was agreed last year is now worth about €27.8bn, meaning Lisbon gets more cash just because of the currency markets.

The extra money from the EU is a little harder to explain. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Berlusconi, right, hands over ceremonial bell to Monti, marking the transfer of power last year.

With Silvio Berlusconi’s vow to run again for prime minster in February’s snap elections on an avowedly anti-German and anti-austerity platform, Italian attitudes towards Berlin and the EU’s handling of the eurozone crisis are suddenly back on the front burner.

Fortuitously, we just completed one of our regular FT/Harris polls, which surveyed 1,000 adults in the EU’s five biggest countries – including Italy– in November. And it’s no wonder Berlusconi believes his new attacks will be receptive at home: Italian attitudes against Germany and austerity are hardening.

We’ve posted the 16-page report with the complete results here for anyone who wants to wade through them, but it’s worth highlighting the Italian findings. Fully 83 per cent of those polled believe Germany’s influence in the EU is “too strong” – the same total as Spaniards, but a stunning jump since October 2011 when only 53 per cent of Italians felt that way. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Cyprus finance minister Vasos Shiarly, left, with EU economics chief Olli Rehn.

With the Greek government announcing the details of its highly-anticipated debt buyback programme this morning, there really is only one major agenda item offering any suspense at tonight’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Brussels: Cyprus.

Brussels Blog has got its hands on the draft deal between Nicosia and the “troika” of international lenders (with the words “contains sensitive information, not for further distribution” on top of each of its 29 pages) that, for the first time, lays out in minute detail just what the Cypriots are being asked to do in return for bailout cash. We’ve posted a copy here.

Senior Cypriot and eurozone officials have cautioned that the whole deal cannot be completed until Pimco, the California-based investment firm, finishes a complete review of the teetering Cypriot banking sector. But the Memorandum of Understanding pencils in €10bn to recapitalise banks.

Considering Cyprus’ entire economy is only €18bn, that’s a whopping sum, equivalent to 56% of gross domestic product – much higher than either the Irish or Spanish bank bailouts.

Which raises a problem: Cypriot sovereign debt is already at almost 90 per cent of GDP. The bank rescue, plus additional cash that will be lent to run the Cypriot government, will take that debt to levels the International Monetary Fund has, in the past, argued is unsustainableRead more

Peter Spiegel

Greek finance minister Yannis Stournaras, left, and IMF chief Lagarde at Monday's meeting.

It may be incomplete and its conclusions subject to debate, but on Monday night eurozone finance ministers got a draft copy of the much anticipated troika report on Greece. As we report online, there’s not much in it we didn’t already know – including the fact Greece will need as much as €32.6bn in new financing if the programme is extended through 2016.

But the language in the report is, as usual, pretty revealing. We’ve posted a copy of the draft here. It makes clear that eurozone creditors will be leaning on Greece pretty heavily for the foreseeable future. This, in spite of the fact the Greek parliament barely passed €13.5bn in austerity measures last week amidst serial defections form its governing coalition.

The most glaring is that Athens will have to find an additional €4bn in austerity measures for 2015 and 2016, meaning the pain isn’t done yet. But it also implies there are some more shorter-term measures that haven’t been completed yet that the troika is expecting.

Greece has revamped its reform effort and fulfilled important conditions…. These steps, which have tested the strength and cohesiveness of the coalition supporting the government, leaving also some scars therein, significantly improve the overall compliance, provided some remaining outstanding issues are solved by the authorities.

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Peter Spiegel

Greek finance minister Stournaras, left, and prime minister Samaras during last night's debate.

Tonight’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers was, as recently as a week ago, thought to be the final bit of heavy lifting needed to complete the overhaul of Greece’s second bailout. After all, Athens has done what it promised: it passed €13.5bn of new austerity measures on Wednesday and the 2013 budget last night.

But EU officials now acknowledge that the Brussels meeting of the so-called “eurogroup” will not make any final decisions on Greece amid continued debate over how much debt relief Athens needs – and how fast it should come. That means a long-delayed €31.3bn aid payment will be delayed yet again.

One EU official said that despite hopes, the key part of a highly-anticipated report from international monitors – known as the “troika report” because it is compiled by the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission – will not be ready in time for tonight’s meeting: the debt sustainability analysis, which remains a point of contention. Read more

Peter Spiegel

A woman walks by Greek anti-bailout graffiti in central Athens earlier this week.

For those who really want to get into the nitty gritty of the revised Greek bailout, we’re also posting two other documents we got our hands on and used for today’s story on the nearly-completed deal in order to provide more detail on what the new rescue programme will look like.

The first document is an October 14 draft of the official “Memorandum of Understanding on Specific Economic Policy Conditionality”; the second is the “Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies”.

Both are chock full of austerity and reform commitments Athens is making to get the bailout extension. But the second memorandum has far more detail on what kind of budget demands Athens is agreeing to. Although there are gaps where specific budget targets are to be included, page two and page nine give strong hints of where they are headed. Read more

Peter Spiegel

IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, during this morning's news conference in Tokyo.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s declaration this morning that Greece should be given two more years to hit tough budget targets embedded in its €174bn bailout programme – coming fast on the heels of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s highly symbolic trip to Athens – are the clearest public signs yet of what EU officials have been acknowledging privately for weeks: Greece is going to get the extra time it wants.

But what is equally clear after this week’s pre-Tokyo meeting of EU finance ministers in Luxembourg is there is no agreement on how to pay for those two additional years, and eurozone leaders are beginning to worry that the politics of the Greek bailout are once again about to get very ugly.

The mantra from eurozone ministers has been that Greece will get more time but not more money. Privately, officials acknowledge this is impossible. Extending the bailout programme two years, when added to the policy stasis in Athens during two rounds of elections and a stomach-churning drop in economic growth, means eurozone lenders are going to have to find more money for Athens from somewhere. Read more

Peter Spiegel

With the European Commission holding its final summer meeting on Wednesday, Brussels goes on holiday in earnest starting next week, with nothing on the formal EU calendar until a meeting of European affairs ministers in Cyprus on August 29.

But if whispers in the hallways are any indication, veterans of the eurozone crisis remain traumatised by last August, when some inopportune comments by then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi shook Europe from its summer slumber. Indeed, Maria Fekter, Austria’s gabby finance minister, has already speculated on the need for an emergency August summit.

Herewith, the Brussels Blog posts its completely unscientific odds on which of the eurozone’s smouldering crisis embers could reignite into an out-of-control summer wildfire, forcing cancelled hotel bookings and return trips to ZaventemRead more

George Osborne, the UK chancellor, surrounded at the marathon Brussels negotiations on bank capital rules. The May 2 talks ended at 2am with Osborne outnumbered 26-1 by other EU finance ministers. A deal was finally done on Tuesday.

 

Peter Spiegel

Spain's Mariano Rajoy, after a meeting at the Spanish parliament in Madrid earlier this month

The recent turn in market sentiment against Spain has led to a somewhat unanswerable debate in European policy circles about what, exactly, the markets are worried about: Is it that the new Rajoy government tried to break from tough EU-mandated deficit limits last month…or the fact they eventually agreed to stick to next year’s stringent target?

If Standard & Poor’s downgrade of Spanish debt last night is any indication, it appears the markets are more concerned about the latter than the former.

Most senior EU officials have a different view, arguing that by unilaterally declaring he was going to ignore the EU-mandated 4.4 per cent debt-to-gross domestic target for 2012, prime minister Mariano Rajoy spooked the bond market by signalling Spain had lost its sense of discipline.

But S&P makes a different argument. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Passos Coelho with Britain's David Cameron during a visit to Downing Street on Wednesday

Largely overlooked amidst the handwringing over Spain this week was a piece written by Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho in the FT that all but admits publicly what many officials have been saying privately for some time: Portugal is probably going to need a second bailout.

In fairness, Passos Coelho doesn’t actually come out and say that, but it sure sounds like he’s preparing the groundwork:

We are utterly committed to fulfilling our obligations. But while we are optimistic, we must also be realistic and pragmatic. This is why we accept that we may need to rely on the commitment of our international partners to extend further support if circumstances beyond our control obstruct our return to market financing.

Although Portugal’s current €78bn bailout runs through 2014, a decision on whether a second bailout is needed must be made much more quickly than that – probably sometime in the next two or three months. A look at why after the jump… Read more

Peter Spiegel

Italy's Mario Monti, right, with Chinese premier Wen Jiaobao during a Beijing trip at the weekend.

Most of the focus on Friday’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Copenhagen was on how much leaders would increase the size of their €500bn rescue system. But according to a leaked document we got our hands on, the eurozone firewall wasn’t the only topic being debated.

The four-page report says the “Budgetary situation in Italy” was item #3 on the eurogroup’s agenda. As we wrote for Tuesday’s print edition, the report warns that any slippage in growth or a rise in borrowing rates could force the technocratic government of Mario Monti to start cutting again – something he has vowed not to do.

As is our practice, Brussels Blog thought it was worthwhile giving some more details and excerpts from the report beyond what fits in the newspaper. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Denmark's Margrethe Vestager, center, with her counterparts in Copenhagen this weekend.

Following our story Saturday and subsequent blog post on two confidential economic analyses prepared for European finance ministers in Copenhagen which paint a less-than-confident picture of the eurozone crisis, we here at Brussels Blog have received multiple requests for more on their contents. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Klaus Regling, head of the eurozone rescue fund

Coming up with a number for the size of the new, enlarged eurozone rescue fund seems to be the favourite parlour game in the run-up to today’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Copenhagen.

According to a leaked copy of the draft conclusions obtained by the FT, the ceiling for the next year will be €700bn. But is that, to quote a former US president, fuzzy math? Is it really €940bn…but some leaders are afraid to admit it out of fear of angering their bailout-fatigued national parliaments?

The leaked draft has three elements of a new firewall starting in mid-2012 : €200bn is committed to the ongoing bailouts in Greece, Ireland and Portugal; €240bn of left-over money in the current, temporary rescue fund is frozen in an emergency account; and two-fifths of the new €500bn permanent rescue fund gets capitalised.

The fuzzy math comes in when you try to account for the new permanent rescue fund, called the European Stability Mechanism. An attempt to clarify, plus some excerpts from the draft, after the jump… Read more

Yesterday, the European Commission slapped down a request by Ireland to defer a €3.1bn payment related to its banking debt.

“I actually wonder why this has to be asked at all,” said the EU’s top economic official, Olli Rehn. “The principle in the European Union and the long European legal and historical tradition is, in Latin, pacta sunt servanda – respect your commitments and obligations.”

So what commitment is Ireland trying to avoid, and why? Jamie Smyth, the FT’s Dublin correspondent, answers our questions.

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Peter Spiegel

Lead negotiators for Greek bondholders, Charles Dallara and Jean Lemierre, outside the Greek prime minister's office last month.

This morning, the dead tree edition of the FT has a story based on some leaked documents we got our hands on regarding the massive Greek debt restructuring that needs to begin in a matter of days.

The documents make clear the schedule is slipping dangerously; the meeting of eurozone finance ministers tonight that has been cancelled was supposed to approve the launch of the restructuring so the process can begin Friday. The whole thing needs to be done before a €14.5bn Greek bond comes due for repayment March 20. Time is running out.

But perhaps more interestingly is the fact that eurozone finance ministries asked for financial advice from New York financial advisors Lazard and legal advice from the New York firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton about what the consequences would be if they launched the debt restructuring – but were forced to scrap it after it had started.

As is our tradition, we thought we’d give Brussels Blog readers a bit more on what the documents had to say. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Greek government employees protest against austerity measures in Athens on Friday.

As the week comes to an end, we seem no closer to a deal to sort out Greece’s troubles than we were when it started. With rumours of a deal a daily (hourly?) occurrence, and questions over whether eurozone finance ministers will meet Monday to sign off on a new €130bn bail-out, Brussels Blog thought we’d revive our popular “viewer’s guide to the Greek crisis” to lay out the state of play for those not following the negotiations on an hourly basis.

The best way to think of what is currently happening in Greece is to look at it as the proverbial row of dominoes that must fall before a deal is complete. Unless they all fall in order, Athens is at risk of missing payment on a €14.5bn bond due March 20, which could lead to a messy default and renewed chaos across the eurozone.

The first domino has basically been complete since last weekend: a deal with private holders of Greek bonds to wipe off €100bn from Athens’ €350bn debt load.

As we reported on Monday, a consortium of private Greek debt holders has agreed to accept new bonds that are be worth half the face value of their current bonds (including a one-time cash payment). The new bonds would have low interest rates that would reduce their value even more. According to our sources, the “haircut” in the long-term value will be just over 70 per cent.

But there are two more dominoes that must still fall: Greece must (yet again) agree to new austerity measures being urged by the “troika” of international lenders –European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – and then Brussels must decide on how to fund any shortfall. Read more