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Europe Goes the Full Monty

Full Monty — “everything which is necessary, appropriate, or possible; ‘the works’”, Oxford English Dictionary

A new rescue plan for Greece is being hammered out in Brussels today. Although the details are yet to be released, it appears that the European Community is finally going for an overall plan that will do more than just band aid over the debt crisis of southern Europe.

European leaders bite the bullet

Greece, of course, is the bad boy of that continent but Ireland, Portugal, and even larger economies like Spain and Italy are being added to the list of troubled nations. Up until now, the EU has grudgingly provided bail-out money in exchange for economic austerity measures that have only driven these countries into deeper recessions and increased social discontent.

The new aid package to be announced will be a departure from this bankrupt strategy. Instead, the EU will tackle the root cause of the issue and reduce the overwhelming debt burdens of Greece, Portugal and Ireland.  It will allow the EU’s rescue fund, called the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), not only to buy that debt but also reissue new debt(loans) at much lower interest rates. It could also extend the maturities on new loans to these countries from an average of 7.5 years to 15 years or more.

The EFSF will also be able to aid troubled banks by lending money to various euro-zone governments (who will then bail out their banks) preemptively. No longer will governments have to wait for the crisis to hit before doing something about it. The EFSF will also be able to buy and sell sovereign debt of any of these countries on the open market in cooperation with the European Central Bank. That should discourage rampant speculation in these instruments, which has exasperated the crisis. 

These moves, which were all rejected by Germany up until now, will form the basis of the equivalent of a Marshal Plan for Europe. I believe it is the best plan yet to address the financial contagion that has been pulling down one country after another within the EU. By reducing existing debt to manageable proportions and giving the beleaguered nations breathing room to repay it over many more years, the burden becomes more manageable.  No longer will Greece, Portugal and Ireland have to slash spending and raise taxes while scrambling to find a way to pay back the loans and grow their economies all at the same time.

I had maintained that it was impossible to accomplish that feat. Readers may recall that over the last year I have been writing (and hoping) that the EU would see the light. This program, while not exactly the route I would have taken, is far more comprehensive than their past plans of simply kicking the can down the road. 

An important change, and one that the European Central Bank had been resisting, is the possibility of allowing a “selective” default occur in Greek government debt. How that would happen is still not clear but it might include a bond-exchange program, a write-down of some of the debt or a buy back by the EFSF of a portion, say 20%, of heavily discounted Greek bonds.

The markets have been wrestling with just how such a default would impact Europe’s banks, which hold billions of Euros in the sovereign debt obligations of the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain).  Will a “selective” default of some Greek debt trigger the credit agencies to move toward a more negative stance on EU banks? If today’s prices of European bank stocks are any indication, the markets believe that there is a plan to avoid the credit agency’s wrath.

All we know at this time is that private institutions in the financial sector will be given a number of alternative methods on how to assist in financing Greece’s debt now and in the future. Some of the ways this can be accomplished are debt exchanges, roll overs and/or buy backs of existing debt.

I am sure that the details will need to be ironed out and, as usually happens with a plan this large, it will be a work in progress with lots of trial and error. What is important is that Europe’s leaders have finally come to understand that the theatre we have been watching for almost two years needed drastic changes. The solution to the Greek financial crisis demanded that the actors revisit the stage with a new act. This week they have responded with an economic Fully Monty. I say Bravo!

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics