Working Paper

Laid Low: The IMF, The Eurozone and the First Rescue of Greece

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As Greece descended into a financial maelstrom in the spring of 2010, a small group of staffers at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) held top-secret talks with officials from the German and French finance ministries to discuss the idea of restructuring Greece’s debt.

Many independent analysts believed a restructuring was inevitable because the country’s debt burden appeared unsustainable. But instead, the “Troika” — the tripartite group of lenders that included the IMF, the European Commission and European Central Bank — attempted to resolve the crisis by giving Athens bailout loans of unprecedented magnitude, piling debt atop debt. The idea considered in those secret talks would come to fruition only much later, in March 2012, when Greece received the largest debt relief in history. In the meantime, the rescue effort would go terribly awry, with consequences that continue to reverberate today as the euro area struggles with weak growth and a rekindled crisis in Greece.

This paper tells the story of the first Greek rescue, focusing on the role played by the IMF. A detailed look back at this drama elucidates significant concerns about the Fund’s governance and its management of future crises. The Fund has come under attack for yielding to the clout of European policy makers and lending its credibility to a rescue that some of its senior staffers viewed with grave misgivings. The result, critics lament, tarnished the Fund’s reputation for technocratic judgment, rendering it less effective at promoting international stability.

The 2010 rescue enabled Greece to avoid default at that point, which might well have sparked a global conflagration akin to the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. European banks holding Greek bonds continued receiving payments of interest and principal for quite a long time thereafter, from the money lent by the Troika. But the interests of the Greek people were arguably sacrificed, and among economists there is widespread agreement that the country’s debt should have been restructured much sooner.

In addition to shedding new light on what happened, this chronicle of events highlights the importance of the IMF’s acceptance, as a condition of its participation in the rescue, of a “junior partner” role in the Troika. This step is judged in the concluding section as being particularly ill-boding for the IMF’s ability to manage future crises, and policy recommendations are offered for alleviating the harm.