Friday, April 2, 2010

Greece May Be Heading to ‘Square One’ as Bonds Fall

Europe’s week-old rescue plan for Greece has so far failed to do what its leaders predicted: reduce borrowing costs for the region’s most indebted country.

The yield on 10-year Greek government bonds has increased 25 basis points since EU leaders agreed to the aid blueprint on March 25, reaching a one-month high of 6.529 percent yesterday. The yield eased to 6.525 percent today, still more than double the rate on comparable German debt. Seven-year bonds sold by Greece on March 29 fell for a third day today.

“What they were hoping for was to set up some sort of arrangement that never has to be used,” said Phyllis Reed, head of bond research in London at Kleinwort Benson, which manages about $32 billion. “The markets have sniffed that out and it seems like we’re heading back to square one.”

As borrowing costs increase, the risk is that EU leaders will have to deploy a rescue mechanism that still needs to be fleshed out. That would push them to decide the role of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund in any rescue and force the head of Europe’s biggest economy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to counter public opinion by funding a bailout with taxpayers’ money.

So far, EU officials say they expect Greek yields to decline as the government in Athens carries out a plan to reduce its deficit to 8.7 percent of gross domestic product from 12.7 percent last year. European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet said yesterday investors will “progressively recognize” the steps taken by Greece. EU spokesman Amadeu Altafaj said that Greece’s deficit-cutting plan is “on track.”

Last Resort

The aid facility, a combination of IMF and EU bilateral loans, will only be triggered if Greece runs out of fund-raising options. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who has to raise as much as 11.6 billion euros by the end of May, welcomed the plan last week as “very satisfying.”

Since then, the extra yield investors demand to hold Greek 10-year bonds instead of German equivalent has risen to 342 basis points, compared with 305 points on March 26. The yield on Greek two-year bonds rose to 5.17 percent today from 5.119 yesterday.

“Markets don’t believe that Greece will be able to see things through,” said Razeen Sally, senior lecturer in international political economy at the London School of Economics, in a telephone interview.

IMF Role

The EU’s bailout plan was complicated by Merkel’s push for an IMF role in the run up to last week’s summit. She argued that German taxpayers shouldn’t fund Greek excess, a position backed by sixty-one percent of Germans, a Financial Times/Harris poll showed on March 22. The final EU agreement nevertheless failed to outline the terms on which the IMF would co-finance a rescue, a lack of clarity that could pave the way for a power struggle.

IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said on March 30 the lender would set the terms of any loans to Greece just as it does with other countries. Trichet said before the summit that ceding control to the IMF would be “very, very bad.” He later changed his tone to say he was “pleased” with the outcome.

“It’s supposed to be a joint EU-IMF thing, but it sounds like the IMF have plans of their own,” said Reed. “There are still a lot of question marks.”

‘Belief Factor’

Some strategists say it’s too soon to say the EU plan has failed to steer Greek bonds lower as the most recent austerity plan, announced on March 3, still needs to be implemented.

“It’s taking time to get the belief factor working,” said Padhraic Garvey, head of investment-grade bonds at ING Groep NV in Amsterdam. “It took six to nine months before Ireland’s story become credible and the Greek story will take longer.”

The premium on bonds issued by Ireland, which is also cutting wages to reduce the region’s second-largest deficit, was 138 basis points today, compared with 247 points a year ago.

Trichet reiterated his view yesterday that Greece’s deficit-cutting plans, which aim to push the shortfall below the EU’s limit of 3 percent of GDP by 2012, are “convincing.” Papandreou called on his ministers on March 30 to intensify their work to meet the budget plan.

Greek officials may not have long to convince investors that the government deserves to pay lower interest rates.

“Over the course of the summer I think we’ll run into a more difficult atmosphere on the markets,” said Frank Schaeffler, a lawmaker from Merkel’s Free Democrat coalition partners, in a telephone interview. “Then we’ll find out whether Greece can pull it off or not, over the course of the summer.”

With investors keeping up the pressure, Greek opposition politicians are criticizing the EU plan. Coalition of the Left deputy Dimitris Papadimoulis yesterday mocked Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou for comparing aid to a “loaded gun” that would threaten markets.

“The gun,” he said, “has proved to be a water-pistol.”

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