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
IMF's Blanchard unveils report at Tokyo gathering of finance ministers and central bankers.
[UPDATE] After a meeting of EU finance ministers in Luxembourg, Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic chief, said he would read the IMF’s analysis on the way back to Brussels. But he cautioned that while the impact of austerity on growth was important to consider, it was also essential to take into account the “confidence effect” budget consolidation has. He pointed to Belgium, which has gone from market laggard to nearly a safe haven after implementing tough austerity measures earlier this year.
Although the headlines generated by last night’s release of the IMF’s annual World Economic Outlook focused on the downgrading of global growth prospects, for the eurozone crisis the most important item in the 250-page report may just be a three-page box on how austerity measures affect struggling economies.
The box – co-authored by IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard and staff economist Daniel Leigh – argues in stark language that the IMF as well as other major international institutions, including the European Commission, have consistently underestimated the impact austerity has on growth.
For a eurozone crisis response that has piled harsh austerity medicine on not only bailout countries but “core” members with high debt levels –Italy, France and Belgium, for instance – the IMF finding could shake up the debate on how tough Brussels should continue to be on eurozone debtors. As French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the influential Brussels think tank Bruegel, tweeted yesterday:
[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/BruegelPisani/status/255520457976061952"] Read more
IMF chief Lagarde, left, with the EU Commission's Olli Rehn at last night's meeting in Luxembourg
For those trying to figure out what the highly-anticipated EU treatise to be unveiled at next week’s summit on the future of the eurozone will say, it’s worth having a closer read at the International Monetary Fund report presented last night to eurozone finance ministers at their gathering in Luxembourg.
The concluding statement presented by Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief, contains almost all the elements being weighed by EU leaders who are writing the report, and Lagarde was quite open about the fact she actively consulted two of the institutions involved in its drafting: the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Indeed, Olli Rehn, the commission’s economic honcho, explicitly endorsed the report at a press conference last night.
The most likely areas of consensus are in Lagarde’s three long-term recommendations for a eurozone banking and fiscal union, though several of them remain controversial, particularly in Berlin, and it remains unclear whether the four EU institutions drawing up their plan will be as willing to confront the German government as head-on as the IMF has. Read more
US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner
Timothy Geithner, the US treasury secretary, has occasionally irked his European counterparts with attempts to influence the eurozone’s crisis policymaking, but European officials will be closely listening to him as the clock ticks down to next month’s spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund.
European Union leaders hope to get non-eurozone backing to double the IMF’s funding to $1tn at the gathering. Although the US won’t contribute, Washington is the IMF’s largest shareholder and is widely believed to be behind the insistence of Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief, that no increase will be forthcoming unless the eurozone increases the size of its own €500bn rescue system.
Those interested in tea leaf reading will get their chance today, when Geithner testifies on Capital Hill on the eurozone crisis. The House financial services committee, where Geithner will appear, helpfully released his testimony last night, and it makes clear Geithner is in no mood to back down. Read more
Poul Thomsen, head of the IMF mission to Greece
On Friday, after much of Europe shut down for the week, the International Monetary Fund issued its 231-page report on Greece’s new €174bn bailout, which seems to struggle to keep an optimistic tone about Athens’s ability to turn itself around over the course of the rescue plan.
But the IMF report is worth scrutinising for reasons beyond its gloomy prose: If there’s anyone who might force eurozone leaders back to the drawing board once again, it’s the IMF, which essentially pulled the plug on the first €110bn Greek bailout early last year when it became clear it wasn’t working.
Signs that the IMF is on a bit of a hair trigger litter the new report. Read more
Hungary's Viktor Orban, left, with José Manuel Barroso during an EU summit earlier this year.
Perhaps because it is not in the eurozone, the recent turbulence in Hungary has not gotten a huge amount of attention internationally. But Budapest and Brussels are currently on a collision course that could have significant consequences for the region’s economic stability.
At issue is whether the European Union and the International Monetary Fund will provide financial assistance to Hungary at a time the florint is in free-fall and the government’s borrowing costs are skyrocketing, with 10-year bond yields now above 9 per cent, well above levels where Ireland, Greece and Portugal were forced into bail-outs. Standard & Poor’s downgraded Hungarian bonds Wednesday evening, citing the unpredictability of prime minister Viktor Orban’s economic policies – including his attempt to assert more control over Hungary’s central bank.
In a letter to Orban sent this week by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, and obtained by the FT, Barroso drives a hard bargain. Not only does he “strongly advise” Orban to withdraw the proposed laws governing the central bank, but he makes clear that any assistance will come with tough conditions.
Excerpts after the jump. Read more
Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, at last week's G20 summit in Cannes
At the European Commission’s regular mid-day press briefing today, Amadeu Altafaj-Tardio, the spokesman for economic issues, said the Commission’s Italian monitoring team is expected to arrive this week. After agreement Friday in Cannes, the International Monetary Fund will be sending its own team at the end of the month. Read more
At the Ambrosetti forum in northern Italy, Nouriel Roubini, the US-based economist, weighs in on the health of Europe’s banks and sides with IMF chief Christine Lagarde on the need for the sector to raise even more capital.
Poul Thomsen, head of the IMF's misssion to Greece, during a visit to Athens in May
UPDATE: Here’s an interesting take on the same reports by our friends and rivals over at the Wall Street Journal.
As part of the Brussels Blog’s new mission to read brick-sized reports on eurozone bail-outs so you don’t have to, today we bring you the highlights of the 173-page International Monetary Fund review of the Greek crisis – which we reported on in today’s newspaper, but which has lots of other good details worth chewing over.
The first thing we like to turn to when getting these kinds of reports is the analysis of just how big the financing hole is for Greece – and how international lenders intend on filling it.
According to page 62 of the report (see the pdf here), the IMF has a slightly lower estimate of how big the Greek hole is than the European Commission: it believes Athens will need €103.4bn in new bail-out funds through 2014, while the Commission thinks it will be closer to €115bn.
Potentially more interesting, however, is how they propose to fill the hole. Read more