IMF-euro zone rift set to continue amid debt relief disagreement

A deal to avert a looming Greek bankruptcy seemed to raise more questions than answers among international commentators amid a public rift between two of Athens' key creditors: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and euro zone leaders.

Immediate debt relief is at the crux of the issue. The IMF is pushing for measures to pare Greece's mountainous debt pile but euro zone finance ministers are reluctant, fearful that it would create a precedent and reduce the pressure on Athens to implement reforms.

At Wednesday's agreement, which granted Greece $11.48 billion in fresh loans to pay off debts that start maturing in July, ministers said they would only consider debt relief measures in 2018 "if needed."

Signs of tensions then surfaced at a Wednesday news conference, as IMF European department director Poul Thomsen noted that the organization wasn't fully on board with the new deal, hinting that its future role as a creditor wasn't confirmed.

The euro zone must detail exactly what debt relief measures it is prepared to take in 2018, he said, adding that "we [the IMF] will need to assess the adequacy of the measures, and we will only go ahead if there is an assessment that they are adequate."

In response, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said Thomsen "was probably tired" when he made those remarks, according to media reports.

Many expect the friction to persist.

"An agreement in principle is not the same as an agreement," said William Adams, senior international economist at PNC. "Debt relief remains conditional from the euro zone's perspective, but the IMF is assuming sooner or later they'll get there. This is a game of words."

Societe Generale echoed those sentiments in a Thursday note.

"This agreement allows euro area leaders to continue to play the extend-and pretend game, all the more so as the IMF said [its] future involvement may be considered at a later date. Note, however, that it will be difficult for this deal to meet the IMF criteria for financial involvement." As a result, the IMF is likely to remain on the sidelines, the bank continued.

So how likely is it that euro zone leaders will succumb to the IMF's wishes?

Societe Generale believes debt relief is ultimately unavoidable.

"Without any debt relief, Greece's gross funding needs will soar to 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2033 and above 50 percent of GDP in 2060....We believe that Greece needs a large debt relief securing market access, failing which it will remain under an economic program for the foreseeable future."

With debt haircuts completely ruled out by euro area leaders, the only options available for debt relief in 2018 are maturity extensions, longer grace periods and/or locking interest rates at low level, the bank added.

Adams on the other hand believes debt restructuring is way off in the future given the low levels of trust between European leaders and the Greek government.

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