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Saturday 21 October 2017

Greece borrowing costs shoot above 10pc after ECB pulls plug

Tsipras, who promised on Saturday to stick by Greece's financial obligations, is seeking to repair damage after a rocky first week. Bond yields spiralled and banks stocks plummeted after German chancellor Angela Merkel stonewalled his plans to ramp up spending and write down debt (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)
Tsipras, who promised on Saturday to stick by Greece's financial obligations, is seeking to repair damage after a rocky first week. Bond yields spiralled and banks stocks plummeted after German chancellor Angela Merkel stonewalled his plans to ramp up spending and write down debt (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

THE cost of borrowing for Greece shot above the symbolic 10pc rate today after the European Central Bank has abruptly cancelled its acceptance of Greek bonds in return for funding, shifting the burden onto Athens' central bank to finance its lenders and isolating Greece unless it strikes a new reform deal.

The move, which means the Greek central bank will have to provide its banks with tens of billions of euros of additional emergency liquidity in the coming weeks, was a response to what many in Frankfurt see as the Greek government's abandoning of its aid-for-reform programme.

The decision came ahead of a meeting between new Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble and just hours after the former emerged from a meeting with ECB President Mario Draghi to claim that the ECB would do "whatever it takes" to support member states such as Greece.

In stark contrast, the ECB move, which required the support of a majority of central bank chiefs across the euro zone, shows widespread dismay with the new Greek government's plans not only in Frankfurt but across the 19-country bloc.

The ECB announced its decision, which will take effect from Feb. 11, after those governors met in Frankfurt on Wednesday.

It means that the tens of billions of euros of Greek government bonds as well as bank bonds guaranteed by Athens will no longer qualify as security in return for ECB funding to those banks.

Instead, it will now be up to Greece's central bank to provide those banks with Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA), a step it takes at its own risk, ringfencing those banks' funding problems from the rest of the euro zone.

Were the central bank to run into difficulties as a result, it would be up to the debt-strapped Greek government, which can ill afford it, to step in.

Greece's plans to make its debt more manageable by swapping rescue loans for growth-indexed bonds may be deemed illegal under European Union rules, according to a lawyer who worked on the country's 2012 debt restructuring.

Greece's creditors will probably object to proposals for such a swap, said Yannis Manuelides, a partner at Allen & Overy, because they cannot accept losses on their loans. That would remain the case even though the creditors would lose less from the swaps than they would from writing down the loans, as Athens originally demanded.

Greece's new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, proposed on Monday that the creditors -- euro zone member states and their bailout fund, the EFSF -- swap their loans to Greece for debt that only pays interest if the Greek economy grows. His proposal has met a cool reception in Brussels and beyond.

"I anticipate that there will be legal obstacles to overcome," said Manuelides, who was among the bankers and fund managers who attended the meeting in London where Varoufakis made his proposal.

To finance their loans to Greece, the creditors borrowed in financial markets. The interest that Greece pays on the loans covers the cost of the market financing.

But if the loans are swapped for so-called performance bonds, the interest that Greece pays will be determined by how the Greek economy performs. If it performs badly one year, it might not pay any interest that year.

And, Manuelides said, "There will inevitably be some years when (Greece is) not paying the full cost of those loans," said Manuelides.

Greece's economy grew 0.7 percent in the third quarter of 2014, according to the latest data.

"If they (Greece's creditors) don't recoup the interest payments, they actually suffer a loss -- and again we come up against ... the EU law," Manuelides said.

The Treaty of Lisbon, one of the founding acts of the European Union, says the Union and member states "shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments."

That is commonly known as the no-bailout provision.

Varoufakis, who met European Central Bank President Mario Draghi on Wednesday, has also proposed swapping ECB loans for "perpetual" interest-yielding bonds with no repayment date.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras pledged on Wednesday to find a solution to its economic problems within the framework of EU law.

But Manuelides said the current plan for Greek debt relief might prove to be a non-starter.

"I am not convinced that the Europeans, or the Greeks when they think about it within the context of the no-bailout constraints, the technical complexities and the other alternatives, will go for this."

Reuters

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