Greek Leaders Fail to Set Debt Plan

ATHENS— Greece's prime minister failed to convince opposition leaders on Friday to support tougher austerity measures to free up EU/IMF aid needed to avert a debt default.

The Parthenon in Greece
Scott E. Barbour | Getty Images
The Parthenon in Greece

European Union policymakers have demanded that Greek politicians reach a cross-party consensus behind long-term economic and fiscal reforms as a condition for providing more funding for the debt-burdened euro zone member.

"Consensus was blocked," an official from one party who attended the five-hour emergency talks with Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Far-right LAOS leader George Karatzeferis told reporters: "Unfortunately, some people put their chair above Greece." The conservative New Democracy party, the main opposition force, has rejected proposed tax increases to help reduce the budget deficit, arguing instead for tax cuts to revive economic growth.

The Athens stock exchange reversed gains on news of the failure to reach a deal and was trading 2 percent lower late in the day.

Financial markets were spooked on Thursday when Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs meetings of euro zone finance ministers, warned that the International Monetary Fund could withhold its contribution to a 12 billion euro aid tranche Greece needs next month to pay its bills and service its massive debt.

But the spread between Greek 10-year bonds and German benchmarks edged back below the 14 percent mark on Friday, suggesting some hope that a compromise could be sealed.

Analysts say if debt markets were pricing in a Greek default, they would react considerably more violently.

"This is not a done deal but we can see a scenario in which the stars align," Jacques Cailloux, a European economist at RBS in London, said. "Obviously there are risks, there is a lot of noise from people who are not decision makers. It feels like it's going in the right direction though. There is not much choice. The alternatives to further aid to Greece are all sub-optimal."

Papandreou's socialists enjoy a comfortable majority in parliament but EU policymakers want to see broader backing for new debt-cutting measures if they are to provide extra cash to plug a 27 billion euro funding gap next year.

Papandreou faces resistance from some members of his own party and from powerful unions. Without a credible political consensus, EU aid guarantees for next year are unlikely.

But unless Europe commits itself to meet Greece's 2012 funding needs, the IMF is resisting payout of its 3.3 billion euro slice of the June tranche.

Greece's finance minister has warned that without the new funds, the country -- which faces a 13.4 billion euros funding crunch soon -- would be unable to meet its obligations and would default.

BRINKMANSHIP?

President Barack Obama told European counterparts at a summit in France that he backed efforts to tackle the crisis and underlined Washington's interest in officials successfully dealing with the problems.

Juncker on Thursday warned European countries could not be counted on to step up and fill the gap left by the IMF if it decided against releasing its portion of the June aid tranche.

"That won't work because in certain parliaments -- Germany, Finland and the Netherlands and others, too -- there is no preparedness to do so," he said.

Some analysts saw Juncker's comments as an act of brinkmanship to press Greek political leaders to form a consensus on austerity measures, revenue increases and privatizations designed to get the country's 2010 bailout program back on track.

Greece Needs Drastic Measures   

But they also appeared to reflect a tug-of-war between the global lender and major EU creditors, led by Germany, over a further multibillion-euro aid package for Athens.

"There is enormous pressure on Greece to resolve this," European Central Bank Governing Council member Nout Wellink was quoted as saying by news agency Bloomberg. "It is difficult. I'm fully confident that in the end, Greece will meet the conditions, meaning that only then the IMF and Europe can say "yes'."

A mission from the so-called troika -- European Commission, the ECB and IMF -- is currently in Greece assessing how sustainable its debts are.

At roughly 330 billion euros, or 150 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), many economists believe the country's debt will inevitably have to be restructured eventually.

Acting IMF Managing-Director John Lipsky said the EU/IMF bailout plan did not envisage any restructuring.

"We have a program under way with the Greek authorities, supported by ourselves and with our European partners, and that program does not contemplate any debt restructuring or re-profiling or anything," he told CNBC television from France.

European policymakers have promised that they will not consider a coercive restructuring that hits private holders of the debt before 2013 and appetite for a "voluntary" maturity extension before then appears to be fading.

All three major ratings agencies have said adjusting debt maturities would be considered a default-like "credit event," triggering a chain reaction of consequences for Greece's credit rating, Greek commercial banks and companies, and potentially other euro zone sovereigns.