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A Greek and an EU flag fly over the Greek ministry of finance in Athens
A Greek and an EU flag fly over the Greek ministry of finance in Athens

Euro zone ponders delay of 2nd Greek program

By Luke Baker and Jan Strupczewski

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Euro zone finance officials are examining ways of delaying parts or even all of the second bailout program for Greece while still avoiding a disorderly default, several EU sources said on Wednesday.

Delays could possibly last until after the country holds elections expected in April, they said

While most of the elements of the package, which will total 130 billion euros, are in place, euro zone finance ministers are not satisfied that Greece's political leaders are sufficiently committed to the deal, which requires Athens to make further spending cuts and introduce deeply unpopular labor reforms.

It is also not clear that Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio, which currently stands at around 160 percent, will be cut to 120 percent by 2020 via the agreement, as demanded by the 'troika' of the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank.

"There are proposals to delay the Greek package or to split it, so that an immediate default is avoided, but not everything is committed to," one official briefed on preparations for a euro zone finance ministers call later in the day told Reuters.

"They'll discuss the options," he said, adding: "There is pressure from several countries to hold off until there is a concrete commitment from Greece, which may not come until after they've held elections."

Germany, Finland and the Netherlands are the countries pushing to delay the package, two other officials said, with Germany the most adamant and suggesting that final approval should only be granted after new elections are held.

Under the proposal, a debt swap agreement between Greece and private sector holders of Greek bonds, which aims to cut Athens' debt burden by 100 billion euros via the private sector taking a nominal 50 percent loss, could go ahead in the coming weeks, with the process beginning in around a week's time.

If successfully completed, the swap would allow Greece to avoid missing a 14.5 billion euro bond redemption payment on March 20. If Athens misses that payment, or the terms of the payment are not altered, it will be in default.

Around 30 billion euros of the 130 billion euro package is made up of "sweetners" to be paid to private-sector investors to encourage them to take part in the swap.

That portion of the package would have to be raised and paid out, and there would also need to be support of around 30 billion euros to recapitalize Greek banks, but the bulk of the funds would not be signed off on.

Data from Athens on Tuesday showed the economy shrank 7.0 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 on an annualized basis, making it all the harder for Greece to meet the target. One official estimated that Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio may only fall to 140 percent by 2020 given the latest figures.

Euro zone finance ministers will hold a conference call from 1600 GMT to discuss how to proceed. The call replaces a face-to-face meeting, which was cancelled late on Tuesday because Greece had not provided sufficient commitments from its side and not all the paperwork was in place.

Asked whether the package could be split, a spokesman for the European Commission said it was not decided.

"Up until now in the discussions, this has always been treated as an entire package," Amadeu Altafaj, spokesman on economic and monetary affairs told reporters, adding specifically on the private-sector portion:

"Up until now, that's never been separated out. Now what will happen tonight, I don't know, I can't preempt that. But that's certainly the logic we've been following so far."

NOT UNTIL APRIL

One major problem with splitting the package is whether private holders of Greek bonds would be willing to sign up to a swap if Greece's financing - which makes up the bulk of the second package - is not in place, since that would mean the state might not be able to meet future bond payments.

As a result, one euro zone source said it was possible that the entire second package - the private sector portion and the remainder - could be delayed until after Greek elections, when everyone hopes for greater clarity and commitment.

"This would mean we have to pay the 14.5 billion euros on March 20, which would be a total waste," said the euro zone source, who took part in discussions among deputy heads of euro zone finance ministries on Tuesday.

"But there is still money left from the first program so we could do it," they said, referring to Greece's first, 110 billion euro bailout program, agreed in May 2010. "This would mean that the talks on the second program, including PSI (private sector involvement), which is part of the package, would be moved until there is a new Greek government in place."

The frustration expressed by Germany, the Netherlands and others - reflected in the proposal to delay the rescue package - is in part designed to put political pressure on Athens. But officials say it is also genuine and a sign that patience is wearing thin after two years of trying to sort out Greece.

For now, the central aim of euro zone finance ministers remains to push ahead with the second package as agreed last October - which would mean signing off on PSI in the coming week, possibly at a Eurogroup meeting set for Monday.

(Additional reporting by John O'Donnell in Brussels and Martin Santa in Bratislava, writing by Luke Baker)

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