As thousands strike, Greece announces return to bond market
Members of pro-communist union PAME chant anti-austerity slogans during a protest in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Greece, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)
Nicholas Paphitis and Elena Becatoros, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, April 9, 2014 9:42AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, April 9, 2014 10:35AM EDT
ATHENS -- Greece announced Wednesday it was returning to international bond markets for the first time in four years amid growing signs of confidence in the country at the forefront of Europe's debt crisis.
The finance ministry said it had instructed international banks to issue the five-year euro-denominated bond, and that the sale "is expected to be priced and carried out in the immediate future."
The ministry did not reveal the size of the bond sale, but Greece's deputy prime minister said recently it is likely to be about 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion). Although the date was not formally announced, it is widely expected to be Thursday.
Hammered by a severe loss of confidence triggered by massive debt and a huge budget deficit, Greece has been unable to tap investors for cash because of excessively high borrowing rates since 2010. it has been relying since then on bailout funds from the International Monetary Fund and other European countries that use the euro.
However, Greece's interest rates have been falling steadily in recent months as its public finances have improved following tough austerity measures.
"This is an important step in Greece's effort to fully exit the crisis," government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told The Associated Press minutes after the announcement.
On Tuesday, Greece's short term borrowing costs dropped considerably, with interest rates on a six-month treasury bill sale falling to 3 per cent, from 3.6 a month earlier.
However, ratings agencies still consider Greek government bonds to still be well below investment grade, with the three major agencies rating them as junk.
Greece last sold a 5-year bond in February 2010, which carried a 6.1 per cent coupon. Judging by declining yields for the benchmark 10-year bond, the new issue is expected to be cheaper.
But analyst Dimitri Mardas, economics professor at Thessaloniki University, argued it would still be too pricey for a country with a tiny growth forecast this year and high pre-existing debt -- standing at around 175 per cent of GDP.
"Can the Greek economy, with its limited dynamic, take borrowing costs of 5-6 per cent, even though these are the lowest in the past four years?" he said in a note. "Probably not, so the vicious circle of over-indebtedness will continue unabated."
Mardas said the issue would likely attract investor interest due to the high returns likely to be offered.
"Whoever is fast enough will take advantage of that," he said. "But Greece will be burdened with new onerous interest rates."
The government argues it can carry the cost as it is issuing a relatively low sum, and the bulk of its debt carries long maturities and an average yield of 2.1 per cent as it is held by governments and central banks rather than private investors. Officials also insist positive market reception for the sale will serve as a valuable vote of confidence.
Other analysts noted private investors suffered significant losses when their bond holdings were trimmed in 2012 to ease Greece's crushing debt load.
"You have to ask who in their right mind would want to take a chance on a country that haircut its previous bondholders ... and where the political and economic situation remains extremely unpredictable," said Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at London-based CMC Markets.
In return for its bailout loans, Greece has imposed a series of deeply resented spending cuts and tax hikes. Its economy has shrunk by a quarter and unemployment has sky-rocketed to 28 per cent.
On Wednesday, unions held a 24-hour nationwide general strike, halting trains and island ferries and leaving state hospitals running on emergency staff. At least 10,000 protesters took to the streets of Athens in noisy but peaceful demonstrations. A similar number marched in the northern city of Thessaloniki.