- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2012

BRUSSELS — Though a second, $172 billion bailout and a deep debt write-off for financially stricken Greece will ward off a financial disaster in Europe, economists only give the deal a slim chance of putting the country on the path to economic recovery - and steadying its place in Europe’s currency union.

Agreement on the bailout, reached early Tuesday after an all-night summit of finance ministers seven months after it was first proposed, will give Greece $172 billion in loans through 2014 from other eurozone governments and the International Monetary Fund. It’s the country’s second bailout, following a $146 billion rescue secured in 2010 that didn’t return the country to solvency.

The agreement also assumes that banks and investors owed money by Greece will take new bonds that reduce their holdings by more than half.

In return for the second bailout, Greece has agreed to painful and humiliating measures imposed by its mistrustful partners that also use the euro, annoyed after two years of what they say are broken promises to reform.

Athens agreed to cut spending and wages, and to permit outsiders to supervise its finances through the presence of European Union and International Monetary Fund officials permanently stationed in Greece. The rescuers also demanded a separate account for the aid money and legal guarantees that creditors get paid before teachers, doctors and police do.

The finance ministers from Greece and the other 16 countries that use the euro wrangled until the early morning over the details of the rescue, squeezing last-minute concessions out of private holders of Greek debt who agreed to lose 53.5 percent of the face value of their investment to avoid even more severe losses expected if Greece fails to pay $19.2 billion in debt coming due March 20.

Serious risks of failure include the chance that Greece’s economy remains in a deep recession - where it’s been for four straight years - instead of returning to growth in 2013 as the deal assumes. That would undermine chances of paying even the reduced debt load, estimated at a still-high 120 percent of annual economic output in 2020, down from 160 percent now.

Additionally, political outrage over the cutbacks could lead Greek politicians to balk at the tough conditions. That could push rescuer countries - led by Germany - to cut off further funding. Elections in Greece are expected in April. The leaders of the two main parties have committed to the cuts and reform program, but anti-bailout parties have been gaining in polls.

Growth is the key. But Greece’s economy shrank 7 percent in the fourth quarter of last year and unemployment is 19 percent, a consequence of cuts in public wages and increased taxes inflicted during a downturn. If that keeps up, even the rescuers acknowledge the reduction goal of 120 percent of GDP is long gone.

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