Portugal urged to exit bailout without buffer

Tuesday 11 March 2014 10.35
Lisbon's adherence to its bailout conditions has allowed it to pass successive reviews carried out by the international creditors
Lisbon's adherence to its bailout conditions has allowed it to pass successive reviews carried out by the international creditors

With Portugal's €78 billion IMF-EU aid programme about to come to an end, its creditors are not only expecting the country to exit its massive bailout on May 17, but urging it to do so without a safety net.

Analysts however warned that it is too soon for Portugal to raise its own funds on the open markets without any recourse to credit as back-up.

Portugal sought the rescue package to avert default, after decades of ballooning wages and state spending led to a massive build-up of public debt.

International creditors granted the bailout in May 2011, but set strict conditions including severe sweeping job, pay and pension cuts.

Lisbon's stubborn adherence to the bailout conditions has allowed it to pass successive reviews carried out by the international creditors, thereby securing a continuous flow of aid funds. 

In fact, it has been so faithfully sticking to the rules that creditors now believe that it is ready to stand on its own.

Steffen Kampeter, a top official at the German Finance Ministry said: "Portugal is close to the end of the troika mission and it would be a good occasion to exit the aid programme without a safety net."

During a visit last week to Portugal, where he met Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas and Finance Minister Maria Luis Albuquerque, Kampeter took care to point out that the final decision rests with the Portuguese government.

But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also pressed the same case, even though in January he had said he preferred to leave a line of credit open for Portugal in case it needed it.

"It is clear that a precautionary programme would provide more guarantees and security," Barroso told Portuguese journalists in Brussels.

"But if Portugal is a position to go without, it would be best for everyone," said the former Portuguese prime minister.

Germany and the EU's stance have left analysts perplexed, as the economists believe that such an exit without any safeguards - unthinkable just months back - would be too risky.

"Brussels and Berlin are washing their hands and have closed the door to a credit line, hoping that the problem would be fixed on its own because markets are calmer," said Manuel Cadeira Cabral, an economist at the University of Minho.

But Portugal's economy is still fragile, with the government forecasting a 1.2% growth for 2014. It emerged from recession in the second quarter of 2013, but for the full year, the economy contracted 1.4%.

Unemployment has fallen from its peak but remains stubbornly high, at a rate of 15.3% in the last three months of 2013.

A credit line from the EU's new bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, would come with conditions attached, helping reassure markets that the government will keep working to repair public finances. 

In addition to any funds available from the ESM, the credit line would also open the door to possible purchases of Portuguese government bonds by the European Central Bank under an as yet untested part of its crisis policy.

The possibility that the ECB would step in to purchase Portuguese bonds would likely help the government borrow at lower rates.