BRUSSELS (AP) — Lending Greece money to buy back its bonds on the open market is "one option" under discussion as eurozone governments overhaul their euro440 billion ($603 billion) bailout fund, a spokesman for the European Union's executive Commission said Friday
Greece's bonds are currently trading below face value, meaning the country could buy them back at a discount and cut its mounting debt pile.
The European Commission raised that idea in an internal "working document" on improving the response to the debt crisis, said Amadeu Altafaj-Tardio, spokesman for EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn.
However, he emphasized that the document wasn't a proposal from the Commission, adding "It will be up to the member states to see to it that our response (to the crisis) is more effective in the future."
Speaking to journalists at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou confirmed that the idea of bond buybacks was being discussed, but stressed that Greece wasn't "engaged in any official way in those discussions."
Greece was saved from bankruptcy with a euro110 billion rescue loan from its partners in the euro and the International Monetary Fund in May, after investors worried about the country's high government debt sent its funding costs soaring. In the wake of that bailout, the European Commission, eurozone governments and the IMF set up a euro750 billion fund to help other governments in financial troubles. That fund in November extended a euro67.5 billion emergency loan to Ireland.
Eurozone governments are currently discussing new crisis measures, after the bailout of Ireland failed to stop concerns over debt levels from spreading to Portugal and much larger Spain. At the center of these discussions is the eurozone's euro440 billion portion of the bailout fund — the European Financial Stability Facility — and whether it should be expanded and given more powers.
In a paper published Monday, London-based consultancy Capital Economics calculated that an EFSF-funded bond buyback program based on the market price of Greek bonds last week, could cut Greece's debt pile from about euro260 billion to around euro194 billion. That would mean that at the end of this year, the country's debt would stand at 126 percent of economic output as opposed to 154 percent, Capital Economics estimated.
However, even that reduction might not eliminate fears over Greece's ability to repay its debts, Ben May, European economist at Capital Economics, said in an interview.
On top of that, telling investors that there is a buyer for their bonds would likely push up bond prices and there is no guarantee that all investors would be willing to sell their bonds at a discount. "So the savings would be much less than the current market price would suggest," May said.
To make the buyback effective, any loans from the EFSF would have to come at very low interest rates, said May. For its current bailout, Greece has to pay interest of more than 5 percent. Germany and other key funders of the EFSF have so far opposed lowering interest rates.
Masha Macpherson in Davos contributed to this report.
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