Greek party leaders prepare for crucial debt talks

By Nicholas Paphitis

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

A protester holds a Greek flag outside the Greek Parliament during a 24-hour strike on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. A general strike against the impending cutbacks stopped train and ferry services nationwide, while many schools and banks were closed and state hospitals worked on skeleton staff.

Petros Giannakouris, Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece — Greek coalition leaders are studying a draft deal on harsh cutbacks needed to secure a €130 billion ($170 billion) bailout that will help the country avoid a looming bankruptcy next month.

The office of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said Wednesday that the heads of the three parties backing his interim coalition government received the draft 50-page austerity document, drawn up with the country's debt inspectors, earlier in the day.

A meeting of Papademos with the party leaders, originally scheduled for 1100 GMT, was delayed until 1300 GMT to give parties more time to study the draft.

The coalition talks have been postponed over the last three days to make time for exhaustive negotiations with representatives of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, on whose approval the continued flow of Greece's vital rescue loans depends. Without the bailout, Greece would not have enough money to pay off a big bond redemption payment next month, triggering a default that risks sending shockwaves throughout financial markets and the global economy.

The three organizations, known collectively as the "troika", have demanded further measures to improve Greece's competitiveness and economic stability — including new private sector wage and pension cuts, public sector layoffs and cuts in health, pension and defense spending — before they approve the new €130 billion ($170 billion) bailout.

The troika's proposals have horrified unions, who held a general strike Tuesday. Greeks have already been hit with a spate of salary cuts and drastically increased taxation over the past two years, amid record-high unemployment and a five-year recession.

Labor Minister Giorgos Koutroumanis told Parliament last week that a demanded reduction in the €751 ($985) monthly minimum wage would quicken the Greek economy's contraction and hit the revenues of struggling pension funds that have already lost €20 billion ($26 billion) since 2009.

But Athens has minimal ground for maneuver. Without the rescue loans, the country will default on its massive debts in March, when it faces a €14.5 billion ($19 billion) bond redemption.

Stocks advanced Wednesday, while the euro was trading near two-month highs, as global markets were hopeful a deal would be struck in Athens. Greek shares were 3 percent up in midday trading.

"We are finally approaching the endgame of the Greek talks," said Gary Jenkins, managing director at Swordfish Research. "Ultimately it is difficult to see how they can do anything other than agree a deal. After all, the alternative is a disorderly default which could lead to a much deeper economic depression and potential civil unrest."

Late Tuesday, Greece's private creditors signaled progress on a separate, linked agreement that would cut the country's privately held debt load by 50 percent, or some €100 billion ($131 billion). The intention behind the writedown is to ensure that Greece's long-term debts are sustainable. Banks, pension and hedge funds and other private holders of devalued Greek bonds are expected to swap their current bonds for new ones worth 50 percent less than the original face value, with longer repayment terms and a lower interest rate. They are also expected to get a €30 billion payment as part of the bond swap deal.

Representatives of the Institute of International Finance, which has been leading the talks for private bondholders, had a "constructive meeting" with Papademos, IIF spokesman Frank Vogl said.

Papademos and Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos will soon brief the rest of the 17-nation eurozone on the proposed deal, Vogl said — a sign the bond-swap deal could be close.

The meeting of eurozone finance ministers could happen as soon as Thursday in Brussels, according to officials, although that will depend on an agreement in Athens on the terms of the second bailout.

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