Greece hangs on by a $17 billion thread

@CNNMoney July 4, 2011: 5:50 PM ET
Eurozone finance ministers put the Greece debt crisis on hold by voting for the last phase of a $156 billion bailout.

Eurozone finance ministers put the Greece debt crisis on hold by voting for the last phase of a $156 billion bailout.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The European Union approved the disbursement of its last $17 billion tranche of bailout funding Saturday, putting Greece's debt crisis at bay -- for now.

With the last part of the $156 billion bailout package in place, the struggling nation will be able to keep functioning for a little while longer. The disbursement, which will be made by July 15, follows the Greek Parliament's approval of new austerity measures.

This latest piece is the fifth installment of a bailout that was approved by members of the European Union last year.

"The Greek authorities provided a strong commitment to adhere to the agreed fiscal adjustment path, and to the growth-enhancing structural reform agenda, which are essential components of our strategy to restore fiscal sustainability and safeguard financial stability," ministers said in a statement Saturday.

European officials will now work on a second proposed bailout.

The bailout is a highly contentious subject in Greece. As the Greek Parliament voted in favor of the funding on June 28, thousands of protesters descended on Athens and clashed with riot police. Tear gas choked the streets as protesters and police pounded each other with clubs and firebombs.

Greece: Back from the brink - for now

However, the bailout won't take care of the nation's long-term budget problems, according to Mark Blyth, an economics professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

"This is simply giving them more breathing space, while they're kicking the can down the road," Blyth said, referring to the bailout. "They need to have enough money to cover the primary fiscal debt, and for keeping the lights on at the hospitals and military bases. Once they've got that, they're able to default without shutting down the country."

Blyth believes that a Greek default is inevitable. "Ultimately, there's no way the Greeks can pay back what they've borrowed," he said.

The debt-ridden nation has "heavy near-term financing requirements," according to S&P, with about $135 billion in government debt maturing between now and the end of 2013. An additional $82 billion is set to mature in 2014.

Still, the rest of Europe does not want Greece to default, because it would rupture the bond market and undermine the European banking system so severely that the repercussions could be felt on Wall Street.

Greek austerity: Cure or poison?

The French banking association and the German Finance Ministry, as well as German banks, have offered proposals to keep the Greeks from defaulting on $152 billion worth of bonds.

These proposals offer different variations on the same theme: rolling over Greek debt. As explained by Barclays (BCS), one of the options is to roll the debt into a 30-year bond, with at least 70% backed by private sector investors.

S&P said Monday that even if European banks were to voluntarily participate in such restructuring plans, Greece could still be considered to have defaulted.

If rating agencies rule that Greece has defaulted, it will make it that much more difficult for the country to obtain additional financing because the European Central Bank might not be able to accept its bonds as collateral.

Another problem is that default ruling could trigger losses among European banks holding Greek bonds or those that had written insurance policies against a Greek default with so-called credit default swaps.

For the Greeks, there is one part of their future that is crystal clear: more austerity. In order to qualify for the final tranche of the bailout, the Greek Parliament had to agree to a new raft of austerity measures, in addition to the ones that were imposed on the Greek people last year.

Since 2010, the Greeks have faced a myriad of austerity measures including pension cuts, a boost to the sales tax, excise taxes on fuel, cigarettes, alcohol and luxury goods, more stringent eligibility for disability benefits, and a hike in the retirement age to 65 from as low as 61.

On June 29 and 30, the Greek Parliament approved new measures that included reducing the pay of public workers, increasing the attrition of public jobs and ramping up taxpayer compliance.

Tax dodging, in particular, is one of the most chronic fiscal problems in Greece. Many of the protesters in Athens blame rich tax evaders for their nation's troubles. The protesters -- particularly the young and unemployed -- believe they're being forced to shoulder an unfair burden to get their country out of hock.

The pain of Greece's crisis

Marko Mrsnik, the lead analyst in the recent Standard & Poor's downgrade of Greece, blames the austerity measures for exacerbating the shoddy job market. The unemployment rate has soared to 16.2%, compared to 11.6% in March 2010, he said.

The contradiction of the austerity measures is that they're harming the economy even as they're keeping it afloat, according to Jurgen Odenius, a strategist for Prudential Fixed Income.

"If you do this at the time when the economy is already weak -- even though it is needed -- there is a risk that the economy will spiral down even further," he said.

-- CNN Wires contributed to this report To top of page

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