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Greek finance minister hopeful of debt deal despite low cap on interest rates set by eurozone
BRUSSELS (AP) ' Greece is still hopeful that it will be able to reach a deal with private bondholders to cut its massive debt ' despite tougher terms set by its European partners.
On the front line of Europe's sovereign debt crisis, Athens is trying to get its private creditors ' banks and other investment firms ' to swap their Greek government bonds for new ones with half their face value, thereby slicing some euro100 billion ($130 billion) off its debt. The new bonds would also push the repayment deadlines 20 to 30 years into the future.
However, the main stumbling block over the past few weeks to securing this deal has been the interest rate these new bonds would carry. A high interest rate could buffer losses for investors, but would also require the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund to put up more than the euro130 billion in rescue loans they promised in late October.
In the early hours of Tuesday, politicians representing the 17 countries that use the euro as their currency drew a firm line on the Greek debt restructuring.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who chaired a meeting of finance ministers on efforts to fight the crisis, said the average interest rate over the lifetime of the new Greek bonds must "clearly below 4 percent," with an average rate of less than 3.5 percent for the period until 2020 ' far below the 4 percent demanded by the Institute of International Finance, which has been leading the negotiations for the private bondholders.
The caps on the interest rates underline that the eurozone and the IMF are unwilling to increase new rescue loans above the promised euro130 billion, even though Greece's economic situation has deteriorated. After already granting Greece a euro110 billion bailout in May 2010, the eurozone and the IMF are threatening to withhold further funding for the country, which has repeatedly failed to hit budget and reform targets required in return for the financial aid.
The interest rate caps will also seriously test the willingness of private bondholders to agree to a debt deal voluntarily. IIF head Charles Dallara over the weekend had characterized the bondholders' most recent offer as the best possible.
Greek finance minister Evangelos Venizelos was nevertheless confident that the two sides could find common ground.
"We have the green light from the Eurogroup to close the deal with the private sector in the next few days," Venizelos said in Brussels.
The alternative to a voluntary deal would be to force losses on to investors ' a move that the eurozone has so far been unwilling to make. Officials fear that a forced default could trigger panic on financial markets and hurt bigger countries like Italy, Spain or even France.
Dutch Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager has said that a voluntary deal was not a must and that getting Greece's debt down to a sustainable level was a bigger priority.
"Greece and the banks have to do more in order to reach a sustainable debt level," he told reporters Tuesday as he arrived for a second day of meetings with his European counterparts. "We have to await the discussions about that because a sustainable debt level is absolutely a precondition for the next (rescue) program."
Europe's finance ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss other elements of their efforts to fight the wider crisis ' including a permanent bailout fund for nations in financial distress and a balanced budget treaty.
Greek stocks opened lower Tuesday, shedding a collective 3 percent one day after optimism on the debt writedown deal sparked a 5 percent rally.
Meanwhile, updated budget execution figures released by the Greek Finance Ministry showed that despite massive spending cuts, the country's fiscal deficit for 2011 was actually higher than in 2010.
Last year's fiscal deficit hit euro21.72 billion ($28.27 billion) ' euro270 million ($350 million) more than in 2010.
Revenues were euro910 million ($1.18 billion) below target, but the ministry said this was offset by higher-than-anticipated spending cuts of euro896 million ($1.16 billion).
These figures are on a cash basis, and exclude some categories of spending taken into account in calculating the final budget deficit for 2011 ' which Greece has pledged to cut to about euro20 billion ($26 billion).
Nicolas Paphitis in Athens, Greece, contributed to this story.