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EU mulls ‘soft restructuring’ for Greece

BRUSSELS (AFP) ― Senior EU officials on Tuesday raised the possibility of a limited but controversial restructuring of Greece’s mountain of debt which could involve private sector creditors taking some of the pain.

Leading eurozone policy-maker Jean-Claude Juncker said a “soft restructuring” of Greece’s 330-billion-euro ($470-billion) accumulated debt was a possibility as an EU-IMF mission in Athens was extended by one week.

Juncker, who heads the eurogroup of finance ministers, told a conference in Brussels that a re-negotiation of Greek debt was gradually coming into play ― a move many commentators have seen as inevitable for some time.

But first, EU and International Monetary Fund experts in Athens would seek details of Greek government plans to privatize state assets.

The EU and IMF have demanded Athens raise 50 billion euros via a sale of state-owned assets to help restore its public finances to health.

“If Greece makes all these efforts, then we must see if it is possible to make a soft restructuring of Greek debt,” Juncker told the conference.

“I am strictly opposed to a major restructuring of Greek debt,” he added, picking up on the hugely sensitive issue since this course could lead to creditors losing at least some of their investment outright.

A “soft” debt restructuring is understood to involve extending repayment schedules and easing interest rates on the debt.

A so-called “hard” restructuring is considered to mean states writing off a part of their debt, the route followed by Argentina or Mexico among the more notorious defaults in the recent past.

Economic experts believe an outright default could have serious repercussions for the whole of the eurozone where Ireland and Portugal also had to be bailed out after Greece sought help in May last year.

EU Commissioner Olli Rehn said that Greek debt held by banks and other private investors could be “re-scheduled” alongside that of EU states and the IMF.

“While debt restructuring is not on the table, an initiative that aims at maintaining the exposure of private investors in Greece could be pursued as agreed for Portugal,” Rehn said on the margins of a meeting of finance ministers.

“In this context a voluntary extension of loan maturities, the so-called reprofiling or rescheduling on a voluntary basis, could also be examined,” he said after two days of official talks largely focused on how to deal with Greece’s debt mountain.

This is an idea pushed by Germany as part of plans to give Greece longer to repay what it owes rather than pumping in fresh bailout aid too soon.

Berlin says it will look at waiting longer to get its money back ― it puts in the lion’s share among eurozone states ― but only if banks and other investors do likewise, so that taxpayers are not the only ones taking a hit.

The theory is that such debt-holders could be convinced that it is in their longer-term interest to try that approach, otherwise a rapid write-down might be the best they could get.

Rehn said earlier that Athens had committed to closing gaps in its budget targets “in the coming days,” having already taken painful measures to save 20 billion euros since its 110-billion-euro bailout.

He claimed Greece could reduce its public debt by more than 20 percent of Gross Domestic Product by 2015 if the 50-billion-euro sales target is achieved and termed the privatization program the “cornerstone of recovery.”

Fifteen billion euros was supposed to be raised this year and next under the existing EU-IMF program bailout plan, Rehn noted.