Posted on Wednesday, December 1, 2010
BRUSSELS — European Union nations agreed to give euro67.5 billion ($89.4 billion) in bailout loans to Ireland on Sunday to help it weather the cost of its massive banking crisis, and sketched out new rules for future emergencies in an effort to restore faith in the euro currency.
The rescue deal, approved by finance ministers at an emergency meeting in Brussels, means two of the eurozone's 16 nations have now come to depend on foreign help and underscores Europe's struggle to contain its spreading debt crisis. The fear is that with Greece and now Ireland shored up, speculative traders will target the bloc's other weak fiscal links, particularly Portugal.
In Dublin, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said his country will take euro10 billion immediately to boost the capital reserves of its state-backed banks, whose bad loans were picked up by the Irish government but have become too much to handle. Another euro25 billion will remain in reserve, earmarked for the banks.
The rest of the loans will be used to cover Ireland's deficits for the coming four years. EU chiefs also gave Ireland an extra year, until 2015, to reduce its annual deficits to 3 percent of GDP, the eurozone limit. The deficit now stands at a modern European record of 32 percent because of the runaway costs of its bank-bailout program.
Cowen said the accord – reached after two weeks of tense negotiations in Brussels and Dublin to fathom the true depth of the country's cash crisis – "provides Ireland with vital time and space to successfully and conclusively address the unprecedented problems that we've been dealing with since this global economic crisis began."
However, in a surprise accounting move, European and IMF experts decided that Ireland first must run down its own cash stockpile and deploy its previously off-limits pension reserves in the bailout. Until now Irish and EU law had made it illegal for Ireland to use its pension fund to cover current expenditures. This move means Ireland will contribute euro17.5 billion to its own salvation.
The three groups offering funds to Ireland – the 16-nation eurozone, the full 27-nation EU, and the global donors of the International Monetary Fund – each have committed euro22.5 billion ($29.8 billion). Extra bilateral loans from Sweden, Denmark and Britain are included within the EU contribution totals.
Ireland's finance ministry said the interest rates on the loans would be 6.05 percent from the eurozone fund, 5.7 percent from the EU fund and 5.7 percent from the IMF. That's higher than the 5.2 percent being paid by Greece for its own May bailout.
Ajai Chopra, deputy director of the IMF's European division who oversaw the Dublin negotiations, confirmed Ireland's government would have freedom to set its own spending and tax plans.
He said Ireland will have 10 years to pay off its IMF loans, and that the first repayment won't be required until 4 1/2 years after a drawdown. Greece, in contrast, has three years to repay its loans.
Chopra said Ireland's decision to use its pension reserve fund had helped win the confidence of those who offered help. He declined to say if negotiators had demanded Dublin use its reserves under terms of the deal.
"It makes total sense to use them at this time. I think this is quite unique in this type of arrangements and it will be taken as a sign of underlying strength," he said.
Embattled Prime Minister Cowen told a press conference that Ireland had no choice but to take help, because international investors had decided that lending to Ireland was too risky and were demanding unreasonable returns. The yield on 10-year Irish bonds rose Friday to a euro-era high of 9.2 percent.
"If we didn't have this program, we would have to go back to the markets, which as you know are at prohibitive rates," Cowen said. "We would pay far more."
Still, analysts and opposition leaders in Ireland warned that the country of 4.5 million was taking on a bill it couldn't afford to repay at rates exceeding 5 percent.
Michael Noonan, finance spokesman of the main opposition Fine Gael party, said he believed that fellow EU members – particularly Germany, the eurozone's bankroller – didn't want to give money too cheaply to Ireland, for fear that Dublin would grow addicted to it.
Noonan said the loans were "pitched high to drive us back into the market," and would encourage Ireland to pursue maximum austerity measures in hopes of reassuring the bond markets.
Cowen told reporters there had been no support in talks to ask senior bondholders to lose part of their stake on loans made to Ireland's debt-crippled banks.
"There was no agreement from the European Union for such a proposal, because of the impact it could have in the relation to the stability of the entire banking system," he said.
Ireland in recent days committed to slashing euro10 billion from spending and raising euro5 billion in new taxes over the coming four years, with the harshest steps coming in the 2011 budget to be unveiled Dec. 7.
Cowen has only a two-vote majority in parliament. Last week he pledged to dissolve parliament for early elections next year – but only after the budget is fully enacted. Opposition leaders won't say if they will support the budget, leaving Cowen vulnerable to losing a key budget-related vote within the next two months.
To shore up longer-term confidence in the euro, EU finance ministers also agreed on a permanent mechanism that from 2013 would allow a country to restructure its debts once it has been deemed insolvent.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the Eurogroup, which represents the 16 euro nations, said private creditors would be forced to take losses only if ministers agreed unanimously that the country had run out of money.
He said that if a country is merely facing a crisis of liquidity, it would get financial help similar to the bailout agreed for Ireland.
European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet said making senior bondholders – chiefly banks that loan to other banks – suffer losses when a nation's finances head toward bankruptcy would be "fully consistent" with existing IMF policies.
GABRIELE STEINHAUSER and SHAWN POGATCHNIK |