Portugal

Pedro Passos Coelho, Portugal's prime minister, addresses his nation on Tuesday

Portugal’s political wobble has raised anew questions about whether it will need a second bailout once its current €78bn rescue runs out in the middle of next year. With bond market borrowing costs hovering above 7 per cent – just below levels where Lisbon was forced into the rescue in April 2011 – a full return to market financing appears far less likely than it did just a few days ago.

What are the options if Portugal can’t make it? Back in February, when eurozone finance ministers were weighing whether to give both Ireland and Portugal more time to pay off their bailout loans, EU officials drew up a memo that included a section titled “Options beyond the current programmes and the role of the ESM”.

Although it’s over four months old, it hasn’t been made public before and it offers some newly-relevant insights into what path Portugal may take if it can’t stand on its own by May 2014. 

Prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho addresses the nation Sunday on Portugal's faltering bailout.

Although Cyprus has pushed its way back into the news, the main event at Friday’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Dublin is expected to be a decision on whether to give Ireland and Portugal more time to pay off their EU bailout loans.

We at Brussels Blog got our hands on the 12-page options paper prepared for the ministers by the so-called “troika” of international lenders – European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – and staff of the eurozone’s €440bn bailout fund, and have posted it here. The document contains five different options: extend the payment schedule a few months; by 2.5 years; 5 years; 10 years or more; or a compromise of 7 years.

As we reported earlier in the week, the debate is now centred on the document’s recommended option, the 7-year extension plan, though there are still reservations in Berlin about moving forward.

Beyond the options themselves, however, the document contains a very revealing analysis on the state of Portugal’s €78bn bailout, which has recently suffered some setbacks. As one official who will participate in Friday’s meeting put it, the topic of Portugal will be “more exciting than would have been a week ago”.

Although the document doesn’t address it directly, it makes clear that Portugal will have a very hard time avoiding a second bailout, since its financing needs in 2014 and 2015 – its first years after bailout funding runs out in July 2014 – will be substantially higher than they were during the pre-crisis period. 

Finance ministers MIchael Noonan of Ireland, center, and Vito Gaspar of Portugal, right, with the EU's Olli Rehn at January's meeting.

After Greece last year won a restructuring of its €172bn rescue that included an extension of the time Athens has to pay off its bailout loans, Ireland and Portugal decided they should get a piece of the action, too.

So at the January meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels, both Dublin and Lisbon made a formal request: they’d also like more time to pay off their bailout loans. According to a seven-page analysis prepared for EU finance ministry officials a few weeks ago, though, the prospect is not as straight forward as it may seem.

The document – obtained by the Brussels Blog under the condition that we not post it on the blog – makes pretty clear that while an extension might help smooth “redemption humps” that now exist for Ireland (lots of loans and bonds come due in 2019 and 2020) and Portugal (2016 and 2021), it’s not a slam dunk case. 

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. 

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… 

Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho arriving at Monday's EU summit in Brussels

As financial markets watch with nervous anticipation the outcome of the tense negotiations over Greece’s debt restructuring, there is clear evidence that bond investors believe Portugal could be next, despite repeated insistence by European leaders that Greece is “an exceptional and unique case” – a stance reiterated at Monday’s summit.

Portugal’s benchmark 10-year bonds were over 17.3 per cent this week, though things have eased off a bit today. Those are levels seen only by Greece and are a sign the markets don’t believe Lisbon will be able to return to the private markets when its bailout ends next year. Default, the thinking goes, then becomes inevitable.

But are Greece and Portugal really comparable? Portugal certainly shares more problems with Greece (slow growth, uncompetitive economy) than with Ireland and Spain (housing bubbles, bank collapses). But unlike Greece, where talk of an inevitable default was the topic of whispered gossip in Brussels’ corridors from almost the moment of its first €110bn bailout, there is no such buzz about Portugal.

More concretely, the latest report by the European Commission on the €78bn Portuguese bail-out, published just a couple weeks ago, paints a much different picture for Lisbon than for Athens. An in-depth look at the largely overlooked report after the jump… 

Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho arriving at last month's EU summit

Financial markets today have been whipsawed yet again by data showing the one bright spot on the eurozone’s economic horizon – the German growth engine – may be faltering. But Eurostat’s quarterly report on the currency region’s economic health did have at least one unexpected positive surprise, too: Portugal.

Yes, Lisbon may be beginning a wrenching austerity programme, agreed as part of its €78bn bail-out. And yes, the country’s bonds suffered recent downgrades because debt analysts do not think Lisbon will be able hit the bail-out’s debt and deficit targets.

But during the second quarter of the year, the Portuguese economy was flat – a significant improvement after two quarters of 0.6 per cent shrinkage, and much better than the 1.1 per cent decrease that analysts predicted. 

Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister

Although the crisis summit is focused on Greece, there are signs that Portugal and Ireland may benefit from today’s deal, too. According to a senior European official, leaders are close to an agreement that would see lending rates on Lisbon’s and Dublin’s bail-out loans be cut – though no word on how much.

Currently, Portugal and Greece pay 200 basis points above the borrowing costs of the eurozone’s €440bn bail-out fund, while Ireland – because of an arcane dispute with France over corporate tax rates – still pays 300 basis points. There’s been some talk that this could be lowered to as little as 50 basis points for all three, but our source was mum on that point. 

If the Greek crisis has taught us anything over the past few weeks it’s that going from a bail-out back into the financial markets is hard, and any rescue programme should be very conservative when it comes to estimating how much private-sector borrowing a bailed-out country will be able to do.

The recent scare occurred because a Greek gap opened in March 2012, when the original €110bn bail-out programme envisioned Athens dipping back into the bond market. Everyone now acknowledges this is impossible, particularly with 10-year Greek bonds still over 16 per cent, despite Wednesday’s rally driven by the successful Greek parliamentary vote on austerity measures.

As our friends and rivals at the Wall Street Journal have pointed out, detailed reports on Ireland show its programme has become much more conservative, with only about €3.4bn in private-sector borrowing called for in 2012 (originally it was €12.3bn; Greece was supposed to raise €15.9bn in the first quarter of 2012 alone). Read on for our first look at Portugal’s financing assumptions. 

Portugal is to get a €78bn ($116bn) bail-out from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the third eurozone country to receive emergency external funding. Lex’s John Authers and Vincent Boland discuss if it’s enough to resolve the country’s longer-term economic problems.