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EU Stance Shifts on Greece Default

European leaders are for the first time prepared to accept that Athens should default on some of its bonds as part of a new bail-out plan for Greece that would put the country's overall debt levels on a sustainable footing.

EU building flags brussels
EyesWideOpen | Getty Images
EU building flags brussels

The new strategy, to be discussed at a Brussels meeting of eurozone finance ministers on Monday, could also include new concessions by Greece's European lenders to reduce Athens' debt, such as further lowering interest rates on bail-out loans and a broad-based bond buyback programme.

It also marks the possible abandonment of a French-backed plan for banks to roll-over their Greek debt.

"The basic goal is to reduce the debt burden of Greece both through actions of the private sector and the public sector," said one senior European official involved in negotiations.

Officials cautioned the new tack was still in the early stages, and final details were not expected until late summer.

But if the strategy were agreed, it would mark a significant shift in the 18-month struggle to contain the euro zone debt crisis.

Until now, European leaders have been reluctant to back any plan categorised as a default for fear it could lead to a flight by investors from all bonds issued by peripheral euro zone countries – including Italy and Spain, the euro zone's third and fourth largest economies.

Yields on Italian bonds, which move inversely to prices, rose sharply last week due to the Greek uncertainty.

Senior European leaders – including Jean-Claude Trichet, European Central Bank chief, and Jean-Claude Junker, head of the euro group – are to meet top European Union officials ahead of Monday's finance ministers' gathering amidst growing fears of contagion.

A German-led group of creditor countries has for weeks been attempting to get "voluntary" help from private bondholders to delay repayment of Greek bonds, a move they hoped would lower Greece's overall debt while avoiding a default.

But in recent days, debt rating agencies warned any attempt to get bondholders to participate would represent a selective default.

Rather than abandon bondholder buy-ins, however, several European leaders have decided to return to a German-backed plan to push current Greek debt holders to swap their holdings for new, longer-maturing bonds.

The move essentially scraps a French proposal unveiled last month, which many analysts believed would only add to Greek debt levels by offering expensive incentives for banks that hold Greek debt to roll over their maturing bonds.

Officials said the Institute of International Finance, the group representing large banks holding Greek debt, has gradually moved away from the French plan and begun to embrace elements of the German plan.

"There's some convergence in the banking community towards a more realistic plan than the French plan, which was out of this world," said the senior European official. The plan was criticised as being self-serving for the banks.

According to executives involved in the IIF talks, banks have pushed for a Greek bond buyback plan in return for agreeing to a restructuring programme, arguing that only if Greece's overall debt were reduced could a sustainable recovery occur. European officials said there was support for the proposal in government circles.

The plan, originally pushed by German investors, including Deutsche Bank, could see as much as 10 per cent of outstanding Greek debt repurchased on the open market.

Since Greek bonds are currently trading below face value, such purchases would essentially be a voluntary "haircut", since bondholders would accept payment for far less than the bonds are worth.

It remains unclear how a buyback would be financed, however. The European Commission has long pushed for the euro zone's 440 billion euros bail-out fund to be used for buybacks, but Berlin blocked the proposal

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