Will markets call EU bluff on Greek rescue?
Greek bail-out accord lacks substance and finance's poker players may soon call its bluff.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor
Published: 9:49PM GMT 11 Feb 2010
The white smoke has at last emerged from the Bibliotheque Solvay in Brussels, but global markets do not like its odour. The Greek rescue plan agreed by EU leaders after a week of leaks is strangely thin, raising suspicions that Germany, Holland and the creditor states of Northern Europe still cannot agree on the terms of any bail-out.
The euro tumbled 1pc to a nine-month low of $1.36 against the dollar and Club Med debt yields jumped as investors read the summit text, searching in vain for details of debt guarantees or bilateral loans, or guidance on an EU eurobond. All they found was an expression of "political will".
"Euro area member states will take determined and co-ordinated action, if needed, to safeguard financial stability in the euro area as a whole. The Greek government has not requested any financial support," it read.
The 27 leaders never even discussed how they might shore up Greece or the rest of Club Med. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was not willing to broach the subject at all. The only relevant topic was whether Greece was complying with Treaty obligations, and how the country would slash its budget deficit from 12.7pc to 8.7pc this year – in a slump.
"They offered nothing," said Jochen Felsenheimer, a credit expert at Assenagon in Frankfurt. "It was just words without any concrete measures, hoping to buy time."
Whether the EU has time is an open question. Credit Suisse says Greece must raise €30bn (£26bn) in debt by mid-year, mostly in April and May. Greek banks have been shut out of Europe's inter-dealer markets, forcing them to raise money at killer rates. They are suffering an erosion of deposits as rich Greeks shift money abroad. This could come to a head long before April.
"Economically, we are in a very risky situation. Greece is close to default. We face systemic risk like the Lehman collapse and unless there is a bail-out for Greece, there will have to be a bail-out for the whole European banking system within two or three months," he said.
Yet they are damned if they don't, and damned if they do. "A Greek bail-out increases the risk of EMU break-up, because monetary union can only work if everybody sticks to the rules," Mr Felsenheimer said.
French banks have $76bn of exposure to Greece, the Swiss $64bn, and the Germans $43bn. But this understates cross-border links. There are large loans between vulnerable states. The exposure of Portuguese banks to Spain and Ireland equals 19pc of Portugal's GDP. Interlocking claims within the eurozone zone are complex. Contagion can spread fast.
Marc Touati, of Global Equities in Paris, said the "haemorrhage of Greece" must be stopped to prevent a domino effect. "We have to move fast, above all to keep Greece in the eurozone. If not, Spain, Portugal, and Italy will be next. It could reach France," he said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy drew an explicit parallel with Lehman Brothers in his press conference with Chancellor Merkel, saying EU leaders had given a cast-iron pledge that no eurozone member would be allowed to fail, just as they promised during the financial crisis that no big bank would be allowed to fail.
Details can be thrashed out later, in this case by finance ministers next week. The talk is of a "coalition of the willing", a group of states acting outside the EU Treaty structure. Britain would not be obliged to help. The IMF would bring "expertise" but not set policy.
Each country will choose its own way of helping, perhaps using state banks or sovereign wealth funds to buy Greek debt. In Germany's case this might be KFW: for France in might be Caisse des Depots. The arm's-length solution is elegant but it does not hide the fact that such action amounts to a debt guarantee for a serial violator of EMU rules. It implicitly opens the door to bail-outs for a string of countries in crisis.
BNP Paribas said any rescue confined to Greece is doomed to fail. "The market would only concentrate on its next 'victim', which would be Portugal," it said. Put another way, investors will demand a similar guarantee for Iberian debt.
It is this worry over open-ended liability that made Germany hesitate. Such help would need approval by the German Bundestag – and some other national parliaments. If Germany finances an unpopular rescue that merely puts off the day of reckoning, or if Athens squanders the aid, the deal will come back to haunt Mrs Merkel.
There was an element of bluff in Thursday's accord, as if the EU leaders hope to muddle through with "constructive ambiguity", fingers crossed that their vague political pledge will never be tested. Bluff is a valid tool of statemanship, but in this case their bluff could be called very soon.