[Marxism] Greece Flashes Warning Signals About Its Debt
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Mon Apr 20 09:49:38 MDT 2015
NY Times, Apr. 20 2015
Greece Flashes Warning Signals About Its Debt
By LANDON THOMAS Jr.
WASHINGTON — By the standards of his frenzied schedule here last week,
the meeting on Friday between Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance
minister, and Lee C. Buchheit, the dean of international debt lawyers,
was a quiet one.
There was none of the media scrum that had followed Mr. Varoufakis
around town during the semiannual meetings of the International Monetary
Fund and World Bank, as he paid calls on the I.M.F. chief, Christine
Lagarde; the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi; the United
States Treasury secretary, Jacob J. Lew, and even President Obama.
But the get-together with Mr. Buchheit carried critical meaning,
according to experts here. After all, it was Mr. Buchheit who helped
broker Greece’s most recent debt refinancing, in 2012.
As Greece now gropes for a resolution to its current financial problems,
the meeting suggests Athens might still be holding out hope for a
restructuring of its debt burden of 303 billion euros, or $327 billion.
What Mr. Varoufakis and Mr. Buchheit discussed is not publicly known,
and neither would comment on the meeting. But that Mr. Varoufakis might
still be exploring a restructuring underscores just how close Greece is
to defaulting on its staggering debt, billions of euros of which must be
repaid in the coming weeks.
As the eurozone braced for the prospect of a default, financial markets
were jittery last week and Greece’s own short-term borrowing costs were
soaring. Repercussions of such a default are so difficult to predict
that European officials have spent the last five years trying to avoid one.
Over the weekend, senior European officials said that while the Greek
debt situation was dire, they still believed an agreement would be
reached. And the United States, starting at the top with Mr. Obama, is
actively engaged in pushing both sides to come together to prevent a
After two international bailouts for Greece since 2010, about 90 percent
of its debt is owed to its eurozone neighbors, the I.M.F. and the
European Central Bank. At the moment, not one of those lenders is
showing a willingness to give any additional payback relief to Mr.
Varoufakis and the new left-leaning government in Athens.
Mr. Varoufakis’s next formal meeting with his country’s creditors is set
for Friday in Riga, Latvia, where eurozone finance ministers are to
assemble for their monthly gathering. Wolfgang Schäuble, the powerful
German finance minister, said here last week that no one should expect
the meeting on April 24 to resolve anything.
Unless the creditors agree soon to release the next allotment of bailout
money, Greece could have trouble making a $763 million payment to the
I.M.F. on May 12. It almost certainly would not be able to meet the €11
billion in payments to the European Central Bank, the I.M.F. and
payments on Treasury bills in June and July.
Mr. Varoufakis’s main message in Washington was that Greece was doing
its best to carry out painful economic overhauls called for under the
bailout program, while remaining true to his government’s anti-austerity
mandate. “We know we are bound to a program,” Mr. Varoufakis said in an
interview late last week, before his private meeting with Mr. Buchheit.
“But there is another principle here: democracy.”
But the Greek government and its lenders remain far apart. Many European
and I.M.F. officials are now openly complaining that Mr. Varoufakis is
expending too much energy as a celebrity economist — he was a top draw
at a panel discussion here last week at the Brookings Institution, the
liberal organization — than on coming up with a viable plan to satisfy
In particular, Europe and the I.M.F. are furious that Greece has still
not changed its generous pension system. Mr. Varoufakis has even gone in
the opposite direction by increasing pension payments to lower-income
“We still do not have a comprehensive, detailed plan,” one of Greece’s
senior-most creditors said here last week. “Plus, the numbers just don’t
add up.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Buchheit, a lawyer at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, has for more
than 30 years represented governments that are unable to pay their
debts. He was the brains behind Greece’s €200 billion debt restructuring
in 2012, at a time when the specter of a Greek default — and the
potential that a country might be the first member to leave, or be
forced out of, the euro currency union — had the eurozone in a state of
The plan brokered by Mr. Buchheit, which required many private holders
of Greek debt to accept big losses as part of the refinancing, was a
For now, Greece is living hand-to-mouth. It has been dipping into the
reserves of various state bodies to pay monthly pension and wage bills.
A senior official in the Finance Ministry said that there was about €2
billion of cash left to tap in this regard and that the government
should be able to finance itself through Friday.
When Mr. Varoufakis flew on short notice to Washington on Easter Sunday
to ask Ms. Lagarde for some payment flexibility, he said publicly that
Greece intended to meet its obligations. The statement at the time was
taken as a commitment by Greece to do whatever it took to pay the I.M.F.
Privately, however, Mr. Varoufakis told colleagues in Washington last
week that he purposefully used the word “intend” as opposed to “will” in
his public statements on Greece’s payment plans, according to people
close to the finance minister who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Varoufakis is also well aware that if Greece continues to meet its
payment schedule as currently mapped out, the country will end up paying
about 12 percent of its gross domestic product to its creditors during
his first term as finance minister.
He has said that such a dynamic is not sustainable for a left-wing
government elected on a platform of putting the interest of Greece’s
electorate before its creditors. The country was just emerging from a
deep recession before the January elections and is thought to be
slumping back into one.
European creditors and the I.M.F., meanwhile, have made it clear that
they will not accept a delay in payment or a simple forgiveness of part
of the debt — the sort of “haircut” that Mr. Buchheit persuaded private
holders of Greek debt to accept in 2012.
“In practical and political terms, a nominal haircut for Greece is ruled
out,” Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who represents
European creditors, said in an interview on Friday.
But many outside experts are saying that the cycle of creditor-imposed
austerity in Greece must stop and that the only clean way to alleviate
it would be through a significant debt cut.
“Greece’s official-sector debt should be forgiven,” said Ashoka Mody, a
former senior economist at the I.M.F. who oversaw the fund’s austerity
program in Ireland. “And we really need to get rid of this
Washington-Berlin-Brussels supervision of Greece — this is the most
corrosive part of the arrangement, and it undermines both Greece and
Even if Mr. Varoufakis and Mr. Buchheit did discuss some sort of a
refinancing when they met on Friday, it is not certain that Mr. Buchheit
would be able to wield much influence this time around. Although he has
done some public-sector debt restructurings, Mr. Buchheit is better
known for forcing private-sector bondholders to accept losses.
In 2012, such bondholders held a majority of Greece’s debt. This time,
private investors own just 10 percent of Greece’s bonds. Their taking
“haircuts” would not provide much help.
But for Mr. Varoufakis, the fact that the world’s leading debt default
lawyer will be advising him sends a powerful signal.
Since becoming finance minister, Mr. Varoufakis has been wagering that
Europe — and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in particular — will
not want to be blamed for forcing Greece into default and out of the
With the debt clock ticking, and Greece fast running out of cash, the
coming weeks will reveal the wisdom of that bet.
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