Beleaguered Greece finally looked to have staved off a catastrophic default last night after sealing an 11th-hour deal with banks and hedge funds to slash its huge debt burden.
Athens' latest €130bn (£109bn) rescue package hinges on a swap deal, under which Greece's private-sector creditors agree to exchange their existing bonds for those of much lower value, wiping €100bn off the nation's debt.
The deal comes after months of negotiations with increasingly impatient European leaders, the toppling of socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou, and violent protests in Athens over austerity measures imposed in return for the rescue funds.
The swap deadline loomed as Greece faced another broadside from Germany over failure to slash costs and boost private investment. German Economy Minister, Philipp Rösler, said Greece's slow pace of reform was "disillusioning".
Investors had until 8pm last night to sign up to the swap deal but an hour before the deadline, one Greek official said, there was 95 per cent acceptance with more expected. Such a level was much higher than had been anticipated even yesterday afternoon and means the remainder can be pressed to take part through "collective action clauses".
Preliminary results from the offer were expected to be announced officially at 6am this morning. Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos will hold a news conference before a call with euro zone finance ministers this afternoon. If the swap failed to win enough support, the bailout will fall apart and Greece will default on its debts in less than two weeks, when a €14.4bn bond repayment is due.
Only bonds held by private investors are part of the deal, meaning that outstanding amounts held by the European Central Bank and other central banks are exempt. "Obviously for the majority of bondholders it does make sense to accept the deal as it is better to get something rather than nothing and if the exchange failed and Greece undertook a disorderly default then the likelihood is that nothing is close to what bondholders would recover," said Gary Jenkins, managing director of Swordfish Research. Participants agreed to accept bonds worth 74 per cent of their investments.
The bond swap is a radical attempt to pull Greece out of its debt spiral and put its economy back on the path to recovery. The hope is that by slashing the overall debt to 120 per cent of GDP, Greece can gradually return to growth and eventually repay the remaining money it owes. The task, even with the debt reduction, is a massive one. Figures released yesterday showed unemployment had shot up to a record 21 per cent in December. Young people are faring even worse with 51.1 per cent of those aged between 15 and 24 out of work.