IMF Internal Meeting Predicts Greek 'Disaster', Threatens to Leave Troika
Today, 2nd April 2016, WikiLeaks publishes the records of a 19 March 2016 teleconference between the top two IMF officials in charge of managing the Greek debt crisis - Poul Thomsen, the head of the IMF's European Department, and Delia Velkouleskou, the IMF Mission Chief for Greece. The IMF anticipates a possible Greek default co-inciding with the United Kingdom's referendum on whether it should leave the European Union ('Brexit').
"This is going to be a disaster" remarks Velkouleskou in the meeting.
According to the internal discussion, the IMF is planning to tell Germany that it will abandon the Troika (composed of the IMF, European Commission and the European Central Bank) if the IMF and the Commission fail to reach an agreement on Greek debt relief.
Thomsen: "Look you, Mrs. Merkel, you face a question: you have to think about what is more costly, to go ahead without the IMF--would the Bundestag say 'The IMF is not on board?', or [to] pick the debt relief that we think that Greece needs in order to keep us on board?"
Remaining in the Troika seems an increasingly hard sell internally for the IMF, because non-European IMF creditor countries view the IMF's position on Greece as a violation of its policies elsewhere of not making loans to countries with unsustainable debts.
In August the IMF announced it would not participate in last year's €86 billion Greek bailout, which was covered by EU member states. IMF Chief Christine Lagarde stated at the time that the IMF's future participation was contingent on Greece receiving "significant debt relief" from creditors. Lagarde announced that a team would be sent to Greece, headed by Velkouleskou.
Thomsen said internally that the threat of an imminent financial catstrophe is needed to force the other players into a "decision point". For Germany, on debt relief, and In the case of Greece, to accept the IMF's austerity "measures," -- including raising taxes and cutting Greek pensions and working conditions. However the UK "Brexit" referendum in late June will paralyse European decision making at the critical moment.
"I am not going accept a package of small measures. I am not..." said Thomsen. "What is going to bring it all to a decision point? In the past there has been only one time when the decision has been made and then that was when [the Greeks] were about to run out of money seriously and to default. [...] And possibly this is what is going to happen again. In that case, it drags on until July, and clearly the Europeans are not going to have any discussions for a month before the Brexits..."
Last year Greek Finance Minister Tsakalotos accused the IMF of imposing "draconian measures," including on pension reform. While Velkouleskou concedes in the meeting that "What is interesting though is that [Greece] did give in... they did give a little bit on both the income tax reform and on the.... both on the tax credit and the supplementary pensions."
But Thomsen's view is that the Greeks "are not even getting close [to coming] around to accept[ing] our views." Velkouleskou argues that "if [the Greek government] get pressured enough, they would... But they don't have any incentive and they know that the Commission is willing to compromise, so that is the problem."
Velkouleskou: "We went into this negotiation with the wrong strategy, because we negotiated with the Commission a minimal position and we cannot go further [whereas] the Commission is just starting from this one and is willing to go much further. So, that is the problem. We didn't negotiate with the Commission and then put to the Greeks something much worse, we put to the Greeks the minimum that we were willing to consider and now the Greeks are saying [that] we are not negotiating."
While the Commission insists on a Primary Government Budget Surplus (total tax minus all government expenditure excluding debt repayments) of 3.5%; the IMF thinks that this target should be set at 1.5% of GDP. As Thomsen puts it, "if [Greece] come around to give us 2.5% [of GDP in tax hikes and pension-wage-benefits cuts]... we should be fully behind them." -- meaning that the IMF would, in exchange for this fresh austerity package, support the reduction of the Primary Surplus Target imposed upon them from the 3.5% that the European Commission insists on to 1.5%.
These targets are described as "very crucial" to the IMF. The IMF officials ask Thomsen "to reinforce the message about the agreement on the 2.5%, because that is not permeating and it is not sinking very well with the Commission."
At one point, Velkouleskou refers to an unusual solution: to split the problem into two programs with two different targets: "The question is whether [the Europeans] could accept the medium term targets of the Commission, for the purposes of the program, and our targets for the purposes of debt relief." Thomsen further explains that "They essentially need to agree to make our targets the baseline and then have something in that they hope that will overperform. But if they don't, they will still disburse."
The EWG [Euro Working Group] needs to "take a stand on whether they believe our projections or the Commission's projections." The IMF's growth projections are the exact opposite of the Commission's. The Commission projects a GDP growth of 0.5%, and the IMF a GDP decline of 0.5% (even if Greece accepts all the measures imposed by the IMF).
Greece Demands Explanation From IMF Over Leaked Transcript
2 April, 2016
Greek politicians wasted no time in seeking a response from the IMF over the leaked transcript released earlier today by Wikileaks suggesting the IMF may threaten to pull out of the country's bailout as a tactic to force European lenders to more offer debt relief, and which according to the Greek government was "interpreted as revealing an IMF effort to blackmail Athens with a p
ossible credit event to force it to give in on pension cuts which it has rejected."
According to Reuters, "Greece demanded an explanation from the International Monetary Fund on Saturday after an apparent leaked transcript suggested the IMF may threaten to pull out of the country's bailout as a tactic to force European lenders to more offer debt relief."
The officials were quoted as discussing a threat that the fund might not participate in Greece's third bailout program as a way to force EU creditors, especially Germany, to reach a deal on debt relief before Britain's June referendum on whether to stay in the European Union.
"The Greek Government asks the IMF for explanations whether pursuing the creation of bankruptcy conditions in Greece, just before the British referendum, is the Fund's official position," government spokeswoman Olga Gerovasili told state TV.
An IMF spokesman in Washington said the Fund did not comment on "leaks or supposed reports of internal discussions" but added that the IMF had made its position known in public.
"We have stated clearly what we think is needed for a durable solution to the economic challenges facing Greece - one that puts Greece on a path of sustainable growth supported by a credible set of reforms matched by debt relief from its European partners," the spokesman said.
"The needed reforms and targets need to be based on credible assumptions. As we have said, there is a trade off between what is feasible on reforms and the amount of debt relief needed."
Reuters adds that EU/IMF lenders will resume talks in Athens on Grece's fiscal and reform progress next week aiming to conclude a bailout review that will unlock further loans and pave the way for negotiations on long-desired debt restructuring. The review has been adjourned twice since January due to a rift among the lenders over the estimated size of Greece's fiscal gap by 2018, as well as disagreements with Athens on pension reforms and the management of bad loans.
Greece hopes for a compromise before April 22, when euro zone finance ministers are to assess its progress.
According to the Reuters read of the transcript, the IMF staffers "discussed whether Greece could apply more austerity as a condition for receiving more aid ahead of big debt repayments in July and voiced frustration at the European Commission's reluctance to side with IMF pressure on Athens. They also suggest that Brussels is sticking to unrealistic assumptions about Greece's budget shortfall to minimize the need for debt relief, which is unpopular with Germany and other northern euro zone hawks. If concluded the review will unlock a fresh tranche of about 5 billion euros, which Greece needs to pay off state arrears and ECB and IMF maturing debt. Greece has no major debt redemptions due until July."
None of this is new, and the incremental data was the peculiar read of the "event" mentioned in our previous post. Reuters tries to tone this down by suggesting that the transcript, if genuine, "appeared to suggest that Thomsen saw more prospect of the IMF applying pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to concede debt relief to keep the fund involved in the bailout and secure Greek cooperation in managing Europe's pressing refugee crisis."
However as previously noted, "the Greek government interpreted the leak as revealing an IMF effort to blackmail Athens with a possible credit event to force it to give in on pension cuts which it has rejected."
As of now it appears unlikely that the IMF will provide further information on what was explicitly stated in the leak, or what may have been implied regarding a potential plan to force Greece into another credit event.