Eurozone bailout fund prepares for the spotlight

AP News
Posted: Oct 20, 2011 6:16 AM
Eurozone bailout fund prepares for the spotlight

Europe's financial fire brigade is hiring.

Successful candidates should have the "ability to develop innovative legal solutions," an "eye for detail," and the "ability to argue convincingly and achieve a consensus among colleagues and third parties," proclaims the website of the European Financial Stability Facility.

And those skills could come in handy pretty quickly.

After this Sunday's summit of EU leaders, the EFSF will wield massive financial power to contain the eurozone's debt troubles and keep them from plunging the global economy into another recession and putting thousands of people out of a job.

And yet the bailout fund, backed by euro780 billion ($1.1 trillion) in financial guarantees from the 17 euro states, has a tiny staff _ 18, counting two secretaries. That is expected to increase slightly in coming months, taking the core team behind Europe's main anti-crisis weapon to 25.

After already funding large parts of the bailouts for Ireland and Portugal, the EFSF will soon take over the emergency loans to Greece _ some euro27 billion ($37 billion) left over from the first rescue package with several tens of billions expected to come through a second loan program.

More importantly, the fund is now the number one institution charged with stopping the debt crisis from engulfing large economies like Italy and Spain, helping to stabilize wobbling banks across the continent and protect the future of the euro.

That role could turn it into a bond insurer or see it manipulate government bond prices like a central bank.

The fund's headquarters, in a nondescript office block on the outskirts of Luxembourg city, look a lot less spectacular than one may expect. Apart from the blue and yellow EFSF labels on the mail boxes, there is nothing to suggest that actions taken within the building could determine the fortunes of the 330 million citizens of the eurozone.

The fund was hastily set up in the summer of 2010, when the currency union's leaders realized that their initial euro110 billion ($152 billion) bailout of Greece was not enough to stem market panic over high debt in several euro countries.

Because creating an international institution would have taken too much time, the EFSF was registered as a private company under Luxembourg law, taking over an empty suite of offices from the European Investment Bank.

More than a year later, the premises haven't changed much _ dark blue carpet, gray hallways and papers piled high in offices. In expectation of the new staff and responsibilities, the EFSF recently took over another corner of the EIB's office space that still stands empty.

Presiding over the whole thing is Chief Executive Klaus Regling, a gray-haired EU veteran who helped set up the single currency in the 1990s and then unsuccessfully fought to protect the union's rules on government spending a decade later.

It was the limitations of those rules that allowed countries like Greece to run up massive debts and failed to counteract Ireland's property bubble and Portugal's pervasively low growth _ the very problems Regling is now trying to solve.

"It was totally unpredictable how this would evolve," says Regling, as he thinks back to June 8, 2010, when he interviewed for, was offered and accepted the job at the helm of a yet-to-be-created institution within less than 24 hours. "I was actually worried that it may become too boring."

No such luck.

Instead, the fund has seen its role evolve from acting as a financial backstop so big that its mere presence would prevent it from ever having to be used _ that hope was disappointed when Ireland asked for a bailout last November _ to essentially turning into a European Monetary Fund, the eurozone's lender of last resort for cash-strapped governments.

"Of course it's exciting to be in the middle of the storm," says Juha Kilponen, one of the EFSF's finance experts who came on board just as Ireland asked for help. "But of course the problems are very big."

At their summit this Sunday, eurozone leaders are expected to set up a complicated scheme that could increase the EFSF's firing power so it is fit for the next hot phase in the fight against the crisis.

It's in moments like these that the staff's legal and financial expertise will come into play. The EFSF has to operate through a complicated web of European rules and treaties where 17 governments, central banks and bureaucracies in Brussels each have a say _ and often widely divergent opinions.

The Latest Demands From Ford
Cortney O'Brien

The fund's euro780 billion in guarantees translate into euro440 billion ($608 billion) it can actually give out in loans, since it needs extra guarantees to obtain the AAA-rating that allows it to raise money at low interest rates.

Of those euro440 billion, euro43.7 billion have already been promised to Ireland and Portugal. Some euro100 billion will likely go to Greece, leaving the EFSF with just under euro300 billion to contain the crisis.

That's way too little to recapitalize ailing banks across Europe, get them ready for a potential default of Greece, and buy up Spanish and Italian bonds to keep the countries' funding rates down.

Instead, the EFSF could start acting as an insurer for bond issues from those countries, using its guarantees as protection for banks and other investors against a first round of potential losses. That could theoretically multiply the fund's financial impact up to around euro1 trillion, analysts say.

Such a sum was unimaginable when Kalin Anev was asked in May 2010 to help set up the EFSF. Originally an employee at the EIB, Anev was the one who registered the bailout fund with the Luxembourg chamber of commerce, organized phone lines and computers and helped hire the rest of the staff.

"It shows how fast Europe also can act, if they want to do something," Anev, now the EFSF's secretary general and institutional memory, says not without pride. "In a month's time we were able to set up this very complex organization."

And that organization is proving to be an attractive place to work. For each job ad, the EFSF receives 200 to 400 applicants.

By now, the fund has employees from Germany, Finland, France and the Netherlands, but also from Portugal, Italy and Spain.

And although resistance to the bailouts has been growing both in rich and poor countries, Kilponen and Anev insist that the reaction they get to their job is mostly positive.

"A lot of people have trust and hope that we do the right job," says Anev. "So most people, they wish you the best and good luck."