August 9, 2022

European Bankers Meet to Refine Greek Debt Plan

Even if rating agencies declared Greece to be in default, it might be possible to design a plan where the country would emerge from default within days or even hours, said a senior German official, who could not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Officials hope such a controlled default might ease Greece’s debt burden while minimizing the risk of unleashing unpredictable market forces. Some bankers have warned that a decision by Greece not to repay the full value of its bonds could touch off a panic that would rival the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The European Central Bank has said it would oppose any plan that was not completely voluntary.

The official’s comments came as French and German bankers and representatives of central banks met in Paris on Wednesday to discuss ways out of the crisis, which sharpened further late Tuesday after Moody’s Investors Service cut Portugal’s debt rating to junk status.

The European Commission’s president, José Manuel Barroso, said Wednesday that Moody’s decision to lower Portugal by two notches and maintain a negative outlook was fueling speculation in financial markets, Reuters reported. “Yesterday’s decisions by one rating agency do not provide more clarity,” he said in Brussels. “They rather add another speculative element to the situation.”

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of Germany said Wednesday that he could see no justification for Moody’s downgrade of Portugal’s debt and believed limits should be put on the rating agencies’ “oligopoly,” according to Reuters.

Moody’s action fed anxiety that Greece’s problems could be contagious, threatening other countries like Spain and perhaps even the integrity of the euro area.

Officials in countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Finland are trying to appease citizens angry about having to pay for a Greek bailout. It is unclear, though, whether the plans put forward so far would do much to ease the financial burden on Greece.

According to the most optimistic assessments, banks would contribute about €30 billion, or $43 billion, in debt relief to Greece by agreeing to swap maturing bonds for new ones with longer maturities. That sum would be less than 10 percent of Greece’s outstanding debt.

The €30 billion figure is probably a reach. German commercial banks have only about €2 billion in Greek bonds that would be part of a rollover plan.

Critics in Greece and elsewhere have complained that the long debate about involving bond investors has only exaggerated the country’s plight by creating uncertainty and undermining efforts to find buyers for government assets that are for sale.

Plans to rope banks into a Greece relief package suffered a setback Monday after Standard Poor’s said that a proposal by French banks to help Greece to meet its medium-term financing needs would constitute a de facto default because banks would be required to roll over loans for a longer term at a lower interest rate.

French and German bankers were scheduled to meet Wednesday morning at the headquarters of BNP Paribas in Paris with central bank officials, under the auspices of the Institute of International Finance, an association of the world’s biggest financial companies, to discuss how to proceed, said people briefed on the plan who were not authorized to speak about it publicly.

“We’re continuing to work for a possible solution,” Michel Pébereau, chairman of BNP Paribas, the biggest French bank, said Tuesday at the Paris Europlace conference, a gathering attended by hundreds of international bankers. If the current ideas do not work, Mr. Pébereau said, “we’ll come up with something else.”

The issue will also be discussed by European finance ministers when they hold a regularly scheduled meeting next week, but a decision then is unlikely, the German official said.

Mr. Schäuble, the German finance minister, has been a leading proponent of involving holders of Greek bonds, by encouraging them to swap existing bonds for new ones that would be paid back over a longer time period.

In a letter June 6 to other euro-area finance ministers as well as top officials at the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank, Mr. Schäuble said that the private sector contribution should be “quantified and substantial.”

“There is a realistic chance to minimize the negative impact on financial markets while at the same time reaching the necessary burden sharing between taxpayers and investors,” Mr. Schäuble said in the letter.

The German government official said Monday that Mr. Schäuble’s statement was still considered a basis for discussion.

Moody’s cut its rating on Portugal’s long-term government bonds Tuesday to Ba2 from Baa1 and said the outlook was negative, suggesting more downgrades might be in store.

Liz Alderman reported from Paris. David Jolly contributed reporting from Paris.

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