I.M.F. Torn Over Whether or Not to Bail Out Greece Again

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In many ways, the situation in Greece has become an existential question for the I.M.F.

The fund has been criticized for overcommitting financial resources to the European debt crisis.

For example, the €30 billion the fund lent to Greece in 2010 was 30 times more than the sum of Greece’s financial contribution to the fund as a member, which is called a quota. The loan is one of the largest in the history of the fund, which was formed in 1944.

Yet the I.M.F. has an obligation to lend to countries that are in financial need as well as to safeguard global financial stability.

“This is where it gets especially fraught,” said C. Randall Henning, a specialist on global financial institutions and governance and the author of “Tangled Governance: International Regime Complexity, the Troika, and the Euro Crisis,” a new book that chronicles the fund’s tortured relationship with Europe during the crisis.

“The fund is digging in its heels, but if the pattern of brinkmanship that the Europeans and the Greeks have practiced in the past prevails, you will see more instability in the markets,” he said. “This is definitely creating anxiety — both within the fund and within national governments.”

Unlike at previous spring meetings, questions about Greece did not monopolize the public discourse this week as finance ministers, central bankers and financiers from around the world gathered in Washington to assess international economic trends.

Instead, the agenda was dominated by the recovery in emerging markets, improved prospects for global growth and uncertainty about the Trump administration’s commitment to free trade policies long promoted by the I.M.F.

But behind closed doors, how to proceed with Greece consumed a lot of time, as usual, participants said. Euclid Tsakalotos, the Greek finance minister, met with an array of officials, as he usually does at I.M.F. meetings, but little progress was made according to people who were briefed on the discussions but were not authorized to speak on the record.

Publicly, the mantra of fund officials, starting with Christine Lagarde, the managing director, was the same: The numbers had to add up before the fund could consider disbursing new cash.

“We had constructive discussions in preparation for the return of the mission to discuss the two legs of the Greece program: policies and debt relief,” Ms. Lagarde said in a statement on Friday after meeting with Mr. Tsakalotos.

That means that for the I.M.F. to lend, Greece must prove that it can be financially responsible over a sustained period, and Europe must address the country’s substantial debt overhang with some combination of interest rate reductions and maturity extensions.

Germany and other northern European creditor nations, who are deeply suspicious of Greece’s ability to manage its finances over the long term, have promised voters that they will only agree to another Greek bailout if the I.M.F. provides its imprimatur.

Still, despite an unusual economic performance by Greece, which ended 2016 with a budget surplus of 3.9 percent of gross domestic product — the highest in recent memory for the notoriously profligate nation — I.M.F. officials conceded last week that they were not close to a deal.

The complexity of the Greek situation was nicely captured in a policy paper primarily written by Jeromin Zettelmeyer, a sovereign debt specialist (not least on Greece) who recently worked as a senior adviser in the German ministry for economic affairs.

The paper, which addresses the thorny question of how much debt relief Greece actually needs, was published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics this month, and has become required reading for policy makers on all sides of the Greek talks.

It made two critical points. It questioned Greece’s ability to consistently deliver large enough budget surpluses to allow it to pay down its debt — which now stands at €326 billion, or 180 percent the size of the Greek economy.

And while the document accepted that Europe had proposed feasible measures to reduce the debt, such as extending maturities and lowering rates, it argued that for these steps to make a difference, Europe might have to commit as much as €100 billion in additional loans to keep Greece afloat.

As someone who has worked on both sides of the divide — Mr. Zettelmeyer was also an economist at the I.M.F. — his goal in producing the paper was to find that elusive common ground that would allow Greece, Europe and the I.M.F. to reach an agreement.

But after 53 pages and countless hours of brainstorming, he came to the same conclusion as many others before him: There is no simple way out of the Greek mess.

“It’s dispiriting — while there are technical solutions there are big political problems attached to all of them,” Mr. Zettelmeyer said in an interview. “There is a presumption that there will just be more procrastination. And that is hard to swallow because things could get out of control.”

That is why some analysts believe that the I.M.F. and Germany will find a way to compromise, with Europe agreeing to just enough debt relief to allow the fund to come back on board.

“The clock is ticking,” Mr. Henning, the author, said. “With these European elections, the last thing anyone wants is another Greek crisis.”

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