It seems like déjà vu: using fear, a political leader pushes down the throats of violently opposed voters an expensive bailout plan that benefits banks. That description applies not only to U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in 2008 but also to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. Make no mistake: the €110 billion bailout plan, organized by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and backed by Merkel and Sarkozy, is designed not to save Greece but to avoid painful losses to German and French banks, which hold massive amounts of Greek debt. According to Barclays’s estimates, French financial institutions hold €50 billion of Greek debt, while German ones hold €28 billion.
Just as Paulson did, Merkel and Sarkozy have artfully presented the situation as a choice between bailout and catastrophe. Any reasonable person would choose to avoid the disaster that an uncontrolled default would cause and reluctantly back a bailout. But there is another way out: restructuring, which was a feasible option in the Paulson case and is feasible now as well. Just as many private firms do when facing the threat of default, the Greek government could restructure its debt. In fact, Greece as a sovereign borrower is in a much stronger bargaining position than a private company.
Here’s how it could work. The first thing Greece needs to restructure its public finances is time. So the initial step of a restructuring plan would be a forced extension of debt maturity by three years. This extension, amounting to a partial default, would saddle holders of debt issued by the Greek government with a 15 to 20 percent loss. Temporarily liberated from the need to refinance its debt, Greece would need only the money to finance its budget deficit, which it must bring down dramatically in the next few years. Any credible fiscal policy plan must shrink the budget deficit to €20 billion this year and €5 billion the following year. The International Monetary Fund would be in the best position to extend the €25 billion in loans to cover these deficits. The IMF could make the loans conditional on these deficit cuts’ being reached and could also make the loans senior to all the existing debt—as debtors in financing lending do in U.S. bankruptcy law—which would keep the funds from propping up the existing debt.
Such a plan would admittedly be risky because of the impact it could have on banks in Greece. French and German banks would not be affected in a major way; most of the Greek debt that the two countries hold is owned by insurance companies and mutual funds, which can absorb the shock, rather than by banks, which hold just €18 billion of debt in France and €19 billion in Germany. Thus the worst-case 20 percent loss that Greece’s partial default could impose on debtholders would represent €4 billion for each country’s banks—a significant blow, but not enough to imperil the entire European banking system. The Greek situation is different. According to Barclays’s estimates, Greek banks hold €42 billion of Greek debt. There, a 20 percent loss would equal €8 billion, potentially too much to bear. The failure of Greek banks could then easily spread a panic throughout Europe.
So a restructuring plan would require an IMF intervention in the Greek banking system: not a bailout, but a temporary takeover of insolvent banks. The IMF could act as a receiver, guaranteeing the banks’ systemic obligations (deposits and interbank debt) while wiping out shareholders and also, to the extent the losses require, long-term debtholders. Then it could temporarily recapitalize these banks and sell their shares in the marketplace as soon as the market stabilized. This part of the plan would not require more than €8 billion, and the IMF would be likely to recover all of that (and more) at the time the banks were sold. So the total amount of funds required would not exceed €33 billion, an amount that the IMF could feasibly cover on its own.
This restructuring plan would cost European taxpayers nothing while preserving marketplace incentives. The current bailout plan, by contrast, rewards banks and individuals who invested in risky Greek debt, contributing to moral hazard and distorting future market signals. But the restructuring that I propose would never be discussed in Europe, let alone approved. In Paris and Frankfurt, as in Washington, the will of the banks matters more than the will of the people.