By MARCUS WALKER in Berlin and ALKMAN GRANITSAS in Athens
BERLIN—Germany is considering dropping its push for an early rescheduling of Greek bonds in order to facilitate a new package of aid loans for Greece, according to people familiar with the matter.
Protesters rallied against new government austerity measures outside the Greek Parliament in Athens for a sixth consecutive day on Monday.
Berlin's concession that it must lend Greece more money, even without burden-sharing by bondholders in the short term, would help Europe overcome its impasse over Greece's funding needs before the indebted country runs out of cash in mid-July.
But some officials in Berlin hope that a short-term fix can be found that would allow a full deal including a bond rescheduling later this year.
Euro-zone officials have acknowledged for weeks that Greece will face a shortfall in financing of around €30 billion ($43 billion) a year in 2012 and 2013—even after a €110 billion bailout agreed last year. But agreement on how those gaps should be filled is proving difficult, thanks to growing political opposition in northern Europe to bailouts of profligate countries such as Greece.
Germany has for weeks argued that private investors in Greek bonds should, in some way, bear part of the burden of any new bailout package for Athens. But the European Central Bank staunchly opposes any form of debt restructuring. Meanwhile the International Monetary Fund is demanding clarity on Greece's 2012 funding before it releases money that Greece needs to get through this summer.
Officials from the ECB, the IMF and the European Commission are currently in Athens to find a way to generate additional cash—including for the Greek government to generate more money on its own. The so-called "troika" are expected to issue their conclusions by early next week, officials said.
Greece's government Monday stepped up preparations for billions of euros of new spending cuts, tax rises and privatizations that it plans to unveil in the next few days even as widespread public opposition to the measures continued to mount on the streets of Athens.
A decision on how the money is to be found is needed by late June. But that this would require Germany, the IMF or the ECB to back down. The new aid package, which officials from European finance ministries are due to discuss on Wednesday in Vienna, is likely to include new loans for Greece in return for greater Greek efforts to cut spending, improve tax collection and sell state assets under international supervision.
But officials from Germany, the Netherlands and Finland say it will be extremely difficult to win their parliaments' approval for additional Greek aid without some form of burden-sharing by Greece's private bondholders. The ECB has warned loudly that a debt restructuring, however mild, could cause a meltdown in Greece's banking system and financial panic around Europe's indebted periphery.
German officials have lost hope recently in the possibility of reaching an early agreement to extend the maturity of Greek bonds, Germany's preferred way of involving private investors. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said that a debt rescheduling can't be pushed through against the will of the ECB.
A senior German official said on Monday that the deal being discussed in Vienna might not include any investor participation—even though that could spark a backlash from German lawmakers.
"We will try to resolve the Greek problem between now and the end of June," Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker said on Monday. European finance ministers are expected to discuss Greece at a June 20 meeting, ahead of a summit of European leaders on June 24.
But euro-zone officials are also exploring a short-term fix that would allow the IMF to continue lending to Greece, while postponing a decision on whether to involve bondholders in a new Greek aid package.
The IMF has said it needs "financing assurances" about where Greece's funds will come from in the year ahead, or else the Washington-based fund can't release its next scheduled loan payment for Greece on June 29.
Euro-zone governments have ruled out lending to Greece without IMF participation. Greece will face a payment crisis in July unless it receives €12 billion of credits on June 29 from the IMF and Europe, euro-zone officials say.
IMF officials have hinted they are flexible about the assurances they are seeking, which might allow Europe to keep the IMF happy with an interim commitment to Greece while buying time for Germany and the ECB to resolve their dispute later.
Euro-zone governments and the IMF agreed in May 2010 to save Greece from bankruptcy with a €110 billion loan package, conditional on Athens slashing its outsized budget deficit. The ECB agreed to support the bailout by buying Greek government bonds in the secondary market.
However, Greece is increasingly falling behind its budget targets, and the original plan foresaw Greece returning to bond markets during 2012—which nobody now sees as realistic. That means Greece will need nearly €30 billion in additional funding next year, and more in 2013.
The difficulty of covering that gap with speedy privatizations or bond rescheduling means that the bulk of it is likely to come from additional aid loans, economists say.
Even before the new measures are due to be announced, opposition in Greece has been rising, with the country's two major umbrella unions—and many of its smaller unions—planning strikes to oppose the new austerity package and the sale of state assets.
On the streets of Athens on Monday, thousands of demonstrators gathered for a sixth consecutive day outside the Greek parliament in a mass protest modeled on Spain's "Los Indignados" movement, which has occupied Madrid's central square for weeks.
Antonis Papaioannou, a 20-year old student studying mechanical engineering in Athens, says that the austerity measures have hit education. In the past year, spending cuts have led to power outages at his college, walkouts by professors that haven't been paid, and even shortages of printing paper for student computers.
"I'm indignant because all I see from the government and troika is how they are trying to squeeze the Greek people dry without spending any money on education," he said. "The Greek government represents big capital, not the Greek people."
On Sunday, some 30,000 protesters turned out to join the movement, while a small tent city of several dozen demonstrators have since set up a permanent protest in Athens' central square.