Eurozone divided over Greek debt solutions

DAVID McHUGH - AP Business Writers,GABRIELE STEINHAUSER - AP Business Writers
Portugal's Finance Minister Fernando Teixeira dos Santos, left, talks with EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn at the start of an Eurogroup meeting at the EU Council in Brussels, Monday May 16, 2011. European finance ministers are meeting over the coming two days in Brussels, with Portugal and Greece topping the agenda. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
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Portugal's Finance Minister Fernando Teixeira dos Santos, left, talks with EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn at the start of an Eurogroup meeting at the EU Council in Brussels, Monday May 16, 2011. European finance ministers are meeting over the coming two days in Brussels, with Portugal and Greece topping the agenda.

Top European officials disagreed over whether to consider changing the debt repayment terms for Greek bonds, a move some experts say is inevitable and others deem too risky for the region's broader financial stability.

Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the group of 17 eurozone finance ministers, said Monday he "wouldn't exclude" a voluntary delay to repayments on Greek government debt that would give the struggling country more time to fix its economy and regain market trust.

But he was immediately contradicted by France's Finance Minister Christine Lagarde who ruled the step out, a sign that European officials are still wrestling over what to do about Greece's debt crisis.

Juncker said the group's adamant stance against restructuring — or giving creditors less than full value of their bond holdings — did not extend to what he and others have called "reprofiling," or a voluntary offer from bondholders to accept repayment over a longer period.

However, he warned that Greece wasn't ready yet for such a move, which would only be considered after Greece makes more efforts to raise money from privatization, budget cuts and an overhaul of its economy.

Dutch Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager earlier acknowledged that ministers had discussed the option of restructuring Greece's massive debt — something eurozone officials had also so far denied.

"Of course we discuss all kinds of topics, including restructuring," de Jager said as he arrived at the meeting in Brussels. "But in public, we are very reluctant about discussing and debating restructuring."

De Jager did not say whether his country favored a restructuring, but he expressed his frustration with Greece's dire situation.

"At the moment it seems that Greece is not on the right track and it should be first brought back on the right track" before deciding on any new support measures, he told journalists.

That frustration was shared by other ministers, who demanded Greece take further measures to ensure it can cut its budget deficit to the targets set out in its initial bailout program.

The Greek government agreed to privatize even more national assets to help pay its bills and adopt additional austerity measures and economic reforms, Juncker said.

In March, Greece already committed to privatize some euro50 billion ($71 billion) in assets, such as stakes in national companies and real estate, by 2015, but eurozone ministers complained that they have seen little progress on these efforts.

"I'm not so happy with Greece," Juncker said, adding that any new measures needed to be endorsed by all political parties in the country.

The ministers said that they didn't discuss in detail whether Greece may also need more emergency loans from the EU and the IMF, but also did not rule out additional help once a review mission of its current bailout program is concluded in the coming days. The country was already granted some euro110 billion in rescue loans a year ago, but it remains stuck in recession and locked out of international debt markets.

Greece's debt is expected to top 166 percent of economic output in 2013, and the country is struggling to get a grip on budget deficits. Most investors and analysts believe the debt load is so big and the economy so weak that only a restructuring will help it back on its feet.

Athens was expected to start raising some money on international debt markets again next year to help pay its bills, but with interest rates for Greek 10-year bonds consistently above 15 percent, that prospect looks increasingly unlikely, leaving the government with a massive shortfall.

Meanwhile, the eurozone ministers signed off on euro78 billion ($110 billion) in loans to Portugal. One-third of the rescue loans will come from the International Monetary Fund, while the rest would be split equally among Europe's two bailout funds — one backed by eurozone countries, the other by the EU budget.

A European official previously said the average maturity of the rescue loans will be 7 1/2 years — like the bailouts for Ireland and Greece — and come at an interest rate of around 5.7 percent. That's lower than the rate Ireland has to pay for its bailout.

In their statement, ministers said Monday that the Portuguese authorities agreed to "encourage" private investors to maintain their exposure to the country "on a voluntary basis" and not pull out funds. That was a key demand from Finland, which had a hard time getting approval for the rescue package from its parliament.

How exactly that should be done, will be up to the Portuguese authorities, Juncker said.