Q&A: Eurozone rescue proposals

A man looks at a picture of euro notes in Athens. Photo: September 2011
Image caption,
The plan reportedly envisages a "haircut," or writedown of Greece's sovereign debt

Europe's leaders are meeting again to try to solve the eurozone debt crisis once and for all.

The aim of Wednesday's summit in Brussels is to agree on a plan that was outlined by EU officials at the weekend.

There has been widespread criticism that Europe's governments have been far too slow in grasping the gravity of the eurozone's problems. Differences still remain.

In the past year, problems have spread from Greece to the Irish Republic and Portugal, to Spain, and to Italy. Even France is beginning to look vulnerable.

So what now?

Why the need for further action?

Bailout packages for Greece (twice), Portugal and the Republic of Ireland have already been agreed, but stock markets remain in turmoil.

The reason is simple.

Despite the tens of billions of euros pumped into these countries, together with widespread austerity measures adopted by these and most other European nations, investors still believe there is far too much debt swilling about in the eurozone economy.

Many believe a Greek default is all but inevitable.

In the meantime, bond yields have shot up in Spain and Italy, which also have high levels of debt, raising pressure on them to sort out their finances. They have had their credit ratings slashed.

There is talk that France could be the next country to have its debt downgraded.

And investors also fear that banks in France and Germany do not have enough cash in reserve to withstand defaults by their debtors.

Italy and Spain are massive economies that are too big to bail out under the current funding arrangements.

The fact that it took several months for the July deal to be ratified by each and every country in the 17-nation eurozone is also a further issue for any new deal.

What is the latest plan?

There are three main strands to what might become a plan of action.

Greek 'haircut'

Greece will simply be allowed to pay back less than it actually borrowed. This means those institutions that lent money to Athens will have to write off some of the money they are owed.

Eurozone proposals put forward in July suggested creditors write off about 20% of what they are owed, but the latest suggestion is that this so-called "haircut" would actually be higher than 50%.

Reports suggest that France and Germany are split on the level and how to implement it.

France wants less - as its banks are the most heavily exposed to Greek debt.

More money

The eurozone rescue fund, known as the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), would be given more firepower.

Originally, the idea was to massively increased in size, from 440bn euros ($595bn; £383bn) to about 2tn euros.

A fund of this size should be able to deal with the huge economies of Spain and Italy.

However, simply scaling up the size of the fund is not politically feasible, as this would involve increasing the size of the guarantees provided by the member governments.

And that is something that many governments, including Germany's, would find impossible to explain to their voters.

Another option, favoured by France, involved getting the fund to borrow additional money from the European Central Bank.

But the idea was strongly resisted by the ECB itself, and has now been blocked by Germany.

One option still being considered is for the EFSF to provide guarantees when countries such as Italy or Spain need to borrow more money.

The guarantee would only cover the first 20%-30% of any debt write-off by these governments.

By limiting the guarantee in this way, it means the 440bn euros will stretch much further.

But it also means that if a government did default on its guaranteed debts, then the EFSF - which in turn means German and other taxpayers - could stand to lose all of the money that it guaranteed.

Bank rescues

Finally, there is a plan to strengthen the big European banks that could be hit by any defaults on national debt obligations by Greece.

Of the three strands, this is the only one that seems fully agreed by the governments.

Banks will be required to raise about 110bn euros in new capital - that is the banks' ability to absorb losses without going bust.

They will do this by selling new shares to investors. If investors won't buy, then the banks' respective governments will step in.

And if their governments don't have the money either - as is likely at least in the cases of Greece, Portugal and the Irish Republic - then the EFSF will have to cough up the shortfall.

Bank shares have been among the worst hit over the past few months, as investors lost faith in their ability to stave off losses.

This loss of confidence claimed Franco-Belgian bank Dexia as its first victim earlier this month. If the eurozone cannot agree a deal, other banks could follow.

What impact is it designed to have?

Letting Greece off some of the money that it owes means very simply that it has less to pay back and is therefore less likely to default on the rest.

Bolstering the EFSF means that the safety net, in the event of any default or a need to provide further bailout funds to indebted nations, is large enough to prevent the problem spreading out of control.

Providing more capital to banks will allow them to cover any losses from any possible default, as well as restoring confidence in the sector, allaying fears of another credit crunch.

It means banks would be able to carry on lending, providing businesses with much-needed funds to grow and to help drive overall economic growth, which is absolutely key to solving the debt crisis in the long term.

If individual economies can grow faster, then they can better afford to reduce their deficits and pay down their own debts.

Finally, it is also hoped that decisive action will at last restore confidence, not only in the financial system, but in policymakers' ability to respond to crises.