Greek tragedy may return to centre stage as debt matures

Major crisis unlikely, but EU may lose precious time as it frets over Brexit: Analysts

While the markets have been worried about oil prices and China over the past few months, Greece could once again rear its ugly head in the months ahead.

The small European country could soon run out of money, resulting in another bout of brinkmanship with the creditors triggering more market volatility.

But analysts say that even if the risks have been underplayed so far, the situation is unlikely to be as severe as last year's debt jitters.

There are mounting fears that if the situation is not addressed quickly, it could spill over into a larger crisis.

The heavily indebted country faces default if it fails to receive loans to cover €3.5 billion (S$5.4 billion) in maturing debt in July.

A street vendor selling old Greek banknotes, among other things, in central Athens. The country faces default if it fails to receive loans to cover €3.5 billion (S$5.4 billion) in maturing debt in July. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Until now, investors have been more concerned with China's slowdown, volatile oil prices and the United States elections, said Mr Nicholas Wilcox, a client portfolio manager in the J.P. Morgan Asset Management European Equity Group. But this could change in the months ahead as people start focusing on the next big news event.

"Greece is certainly coming back into the circle," he said.

The pressure is already building. Last Wednesday, the European Union rejected Greece's attempt to call for a summit to discuss its bailout programme.

Instead, European Council president Donald Tusk wanted to keep the talks among the euro zone finance ministers themselves.

At the heart of the problem is whether Greece has the ability to meet the austerity targets it was set when it received the €86 billion bailout last October.

But the International Monetary Fund (IMF) now wants Greece to legislate additional contingency measures worth €3.6 billion, or 2 per cent of its gross domestic product, to be enforced in the event that it fails to meet fiscal targets.

Greece, on the other hand, insists that the package was agreed last year and that there is no basis to change the targets now.

Mr Paras Anand, head of European equities at Fidelity International, said the situation in Greece "remains complex".

"Much of the challenge lies in the gap that is emerging between the political agenda (the desire to have stability within the euro zone) and that of the IMF, which is posing tougher questions about the management of the economy," he said.

But analysts agree that the situation, while tricky, is unlikely to result in another full-blown crisis like last year. Some volatility is to be expected but the chances of a full-blown meltdown are not high.

Mr Wilcox noted that the ruling Greek party Syriza is no longer the extreme-left-wing outfit it was when it first came to power.

On the flip side, the EU is also unlikely to want to let Greece leave the union.

What remains uncertain, however, is how all this will play out against the backdrop of Britain potentially leaving the EU.

"The EU will be preoccupied with the idea of Brexit and it may not return to Greece's problems until it sorts out the bigger issue. By then, it may lose precious time to fix the problem," said Mr Wilcox.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2016, with the headline 'Greek tragedy may return to centre stage as debt matures'. Print Edition | Subscribe