sovereign debt crisis

Ireland's Kenny, right, with European Commission chief Barroso at start of the Irish EU presidency.

Ireland appears to be taking advantage of the comparatively positive sentiment in the eurozone that has marked the start of the year by moving back into the bond markets in a major way.

Last week, Dublin raised €2.5bn by issuing additional five-year government bonds, and then days later was able to convince private investors to buy €1bn in debt it holds in one of the largest banks nationalised at the peak of its banking crisis. This morning, the government was at it again, announcing a €500m auction in short-term t-bills will take place tomorrow.

Despite the winning streak, there’s still a lot of nervousness in official circles about whether Ireland can fully emerge from its bailout when its €67.5bn in rescue loans run out in November. All this has led to a debate in Dublin about whether Ireland should seek additional aid, such as a line of credit from the International Monetary Fund or the EU – which would be backed by the European Central Bank’s new limitless bond-buying programme – to provide a backstop to new Irish bonds.

The Irish website TheStory.ie got its hands on the new European Commission report on the Irish bailout, which makes clear on page 44 that Dublin is in discussions with the troika about whether the ECB’s bond-buying programme – known as Outright Monetary Transactions – can be accessed: 

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. 

Enda Kenny, Ireland's prime minister, during a November EU summit in Brussels

One of the hardest things about keeping on top of the eurozone crisis is the tendency for issues once regarded as done and dusted to re-emerge months later as undecided. In the new year, there are two places where this revisionism will be thrust back into the limelight: Cyprus and Ireland.

In Cyprus, two hard-and-fast principles, long believed sacrosanct, will be tested. The first is eurozone leaders’ long-held insistence that Greece is “unique”, in that it would be the only eurozone country where private holders of sovereign debt would be defaulted on.

With Cyprus’s bailout likely to double the country’s debt levels, officials say debt relief must come from somewhere or Nicosia faces a burden rivalling Greece’s – somewhere in the neighbourhood of 190 per cent of economic output. Haircuts for private bondholders could be one option to lower that, though for the time being Jean-Claude Juncker, outgoing head of the eurogroup of finance ministers, insists it’s off the table.

Which takes us to controversial option two: wiping out senior creditors in Cypriot banks. If creditors don’t need to be repaid, than the size of the bailout can be much smaller. This may appear more palatable to eurozone leaders – after all, about €12bn of the €17.5bn in bailout funding is need to recapitalise Cyprus’s collapsing banking sector – but it would also break unspoken rules. 

Van Rompuy, left, has set out a different vision of common eurozone debt than Barroso, right.

Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, published the latest iteration of his plan to overhaul the eurozone this morning, just a week after his counterpart across the Rue de la Loi, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, offered his own blueprint.

Van Rompuy’s 14-page outline includes many of the ideas he’s been proffering since October, including a requirement that all eurozone countries engage in “contractual arrangements” with Brussels, committing them to economic reform plans, and the creation of a eurozone budget. Barroso’s plan has similar elements.

But it’s worth noting where Barroso and Van Rompuy differ, because it could have major implications for the direction the eurozone heads in the coming months. And the differences are perhaps nowhere more evident than on one of the issues that has bedevilled the eurozone since the outset of the crisis: so-called “eurobonds”.

 

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 unsustainable

IMF chief Christine Lagarde arrives at Monday's eurogroup meeting where Greek deal was struck.

When eurozone finance minsters announced their long-delayed deal to overhaul Greece’s second bailout early Tuesday morning, there was much they didn’t disclose.

The most glaring was how big a highly-touted bond buyback programme would be, a question dodged repeatedly at a post-deal news conference. But there were other things that were left out of a two-page statement summing up the deal, including how much the European Central Bank was making on its Greek bond holdings, profits that will be returned to Athens as part of the agreement.

It turns out, those were not the only – or even the biggest – unanswered questions left after the early-morning deal. As we report in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, ministers failed to find enough debt relief measures to get to the purported Greek debt target of 124 per cent of economic output by 2020, far above the 120 per cent target set in February.

In reporting our story, we relied heavily on a leaked chart that we got our hands on (which we’ve linked to here) that lays out in great detail the assumptions built into the new programme. A quick review of the chart comes after the jump… 

Germany's Schäuble and France's Moscovici after the 1st attempt this month to reach a Greek deal.

Eurozone finance ministers have begun arriving at the EU’s summit building in Brussels for their third meeting in two weeks to try come up with a deal to get Greece’s overweening debt levels back down to levels that can credibly be considered sustainable.

For those who need a reminder of where the talks stand, we offer a handy official chart we got our hands on (see it here) which shows just how big the debt gap is – a gap that must be closed to finalise the overhauled programme and release the long-delayed €31.3bn in bailout assistance.

The key thing to remember is the last time the eurozone revamped the Greek programme in February, they agreed that it would return Athens to a debt level of 120 per cent of economic output by 2020. This has become a de facto benchmark.

As the chart shows, without any debt relief, Greece’s debt is now expected to be at 144 per cent by 2020 and the entire debate today (and possibly tonight) will be on who will give up some share of Greek debt repayments to bring that down. 

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. 

Geithner, left, has been in frequent touch with ECB's Draghi and his predecessor, Trichet.

A joint election party co-hosted by Democrats and Republicans Abroad at the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels this evening is scheduled to go until 3am in anticipation of a long night ahead for any eurocrats waiting to get first word on who has won the US presidential contest.

Looking for something to do in the interim? For his part, French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the influential Brussels think tank Bruegel, scoured the recently-released calendars of US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner to find out which of the American’s EU counterparts he talked to most frequently since the eurozone crisis broke nearly three years ago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, by far his most frequent phone calls have gone to the Washington-based International Monetary Fund. Pisani-Ferry counts 114 contacts with either IMF chief Christine Lagarde or her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or their deputies.

What is a surprise is that Geithner’s most frequent interlocutor on this side of the Atlantic has not been in Brussels, Paris or Berlin. Instead, it was Frankfurt, where he contacted European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and his predecessor, Jean-Claude Trichet, 58 times in the 30 months examined. 

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"]