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Exclusive: Chicago nears fiscal free fall with latest downgrade


CHICAGO (Reuters) – Chicago drew closer to a fiscal free fall on Friday with a rating downgrade from Moody’s Investors Service that could trigger the immediate termination of four interest-rate swap agreements, costing the city about $58 million and raising the prospect of more broken swaps contracts.

The downgrade to Baa2, just two steps above junk, and a warning the rating could fall further still, means the third-biggest U.S. city could face even higher costs in the future if banks choose to terminate other interest-rate hedges against fluctuations in interest rates. All told, Chicago holds swaps contracts covering $2.67 billion in debt, according to a disclosure late last year.

“This is an unfortunate wake-up call for anyone still asleep over the fiscal cliff facing the city of Chicago,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Chicago-based government finance watchdog, The Civic Federation.

Chicago’s finances are already sagging under an unfunded pension liability Moody’s has pegged at $32 billion and that is equal to eight times the city’s operating revenue. The city has a $300 million structural deficit in its $3.53 billion operating budget and is required by an Illinois law to boost the 2016 contribution to its police and fire pension funds by $550 million.

Cost-saving reforms for the city’s other two pension funds, which face insolvency in a matter of years, are being challenged in court by labor unions and retirees.

State funding due Chicago would drop by $210 million between July 1 and the end of 2016 under a plan proposed by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.

Given all the financial pressures, both Moody’s and Standard Poor’s, which affirmed the city’s A-plus rating, warned on Friday that Chicago’s credit ratings have room to sink.

Moody’s said Chicago’s rating could be cut if Illinois courts find pension reform laws enacted to shore up the state’s financially ailing pension system and for two of Chicago’s retirement systems are unconstitutional. A ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court on one of the laws could come as early as this spring.

SP warned of a multi-notch downgrade if the city fails to come up with a sustainable plan this year to pay its escalating pension contributions.

In a report, Moody’s noted that the downgrade to Baa2 moves the city closer to termination of 11 more swaps deals. Termination on those contracts would potentially cost Chicago an additional $133 million, Moody’s noted.

Chicago has the financial resources at hand to cover the initial $58 million termination payments on the four swaps if the city is unable to renegotiate terms, Moody’s said.

“The city’s available liquidity is more than sufficient to cover these termination costs,” Moody’s stated.

If the rating falls below Baa3, Chicago could be forced to pay about $1.2 billion if banks that provide liquidity facilities like letters of credit for city debt demand immediate collateral, Moody’s said.

In an affidavit late last year, the city’s chief financial officer, Lois Scott, acknowledged that a single-step downgrade by either Moody’s or SP could trigger about $50 million in immediate payments and expose the city to variations in interest rates.

A spokeswoman for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The downgrade and violation of terms on the swaps agreement likely will become an issue in Emanuel’s re-election campaign. The first-term mayor, a former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, failed on Tuesday to win a majority of votes in a primary election, and faces a runoff vote April 7 against a Cook County commissioner, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

Moody’s based its one-notch downgrade affecting $8.3 billion of general obligation bonds to Baa2 with a negative outlook on the city’s growing costs related to its big unfunded pension liability.

Chicago is defending a 2014 Illinois law that boosted pension contributions by the city and its workers to two of its retirement funds and reduced benefits. In the affidavit and in testimony earlier this month in Cook County Circuit Court, Chicago CFO Scott quantified the city’s exposure to a variety of credit instruments as a result of further rating downgrades.

Under a three-notch downgrade, Chicago would default on about $2.8 billion of credit facilities, including letters of credit, that the city would likely not be able to replace, according to Scott. Moody’s analysts said most of Chicago’s $806 million of variable-rate GO bonds are tied to swaps.

The city, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has eliminated hundreds of millions of dollars in risk by terminating or renegotiating 18 interest rate swap or swaption contracts and those efforts are continuing, spokeswoman Libby Langsdorf said last month.

Shawn O’Leary, a senior research analyst at Nuveen Investments, said banks tend to renegotiate terms on swap agreements.

“I would be surprised if the parties demand termination payments,” he said.

Some Chicago debt is trading at worse levels than bonds sold by Illinois, which is paying the biggest yield penalty among states in the U.S. municipal bond market due to its own fiscal woes.

The spread on Friday for Chicago bonds due in 2019 over the market’s benchmark triple-A scale hit 125 basis points, which is 25 basis points over Illinois’ so-called credit spread, according to Municipal Market Data.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog; editing by Phil Berlowitz, David Greising and Bernard Orr)

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Lockheed, Sikorsky venture awarded $2.0 billion helicopter support deal


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy has awarded a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) and Sikorsky Helicopter a contract worth $2 billion to service the Navy’s H-60 helicopters through Jan. 31, 2020, the Pentagon announced on Friday.

The fixed-price contract covers “performance-based logistics” on 1,710 assemblies and components, and covers the repair, modification, overhaul and replacement of hardware for the Navy’s fleet of H-60 helicopters.

The contact was awarded to Marine Helicopter Support Co, a joint venture of Lockheed and Sikorsky, is a unit of United Technologies Corp (UTX.N).

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Gunna Dickson)

Article source: http://feeds.reuters.com/~r/reuters/businessNews/~3/2ZHaXvxbBfE/story01.htm

Dudley, top U.S. economists urge later Fed rate hike


NEW YORK (Reuters) – Raising interest rates too late is safer than acting too early, an influential Federal Reserve official said on Friday, endorsing a high-profile research paper that argues the U.S. economy, given time, can rebound to the strong growth rate to which Americans are accustomed.

The paper by four top U.S. economists, presented on Friday to a roomful of powerful central bankers in New York, argues the Fed would be wise to keep rates at rock bottom for longer than planned and then tighten monetary policy more aggressively.

New York Fed President William Dudley, who offered a critique of the paper, cited currently low inflation and warned against being too anxious to tighten monetary policy.

The risks of hiking rates “a bit early are higher than the risks of lifting off a bit late,” he told a forum hosted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “This argues for a more inertial approach to policy.”

The U.S. central bank is in the global spotlight as it weighs when to lift rates after more than six years near zero, and how quickly to tighten policy thereafter.

Some policymakers, like Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, caution against waiting too long, given concerns about potential financial stability and an erosion of public confidence in the economy.

Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer, answering a question at the forum, said without hesitation that the central bank will hike rates this year despite some second-guessing among investors. The first rate hike is “getting closer,” he said, adding that the central bank will not follow a pre-determined path of tightening thereafter.

The paper’s authors, like Dudley, offer a somewhat dovish solution to the dilemma of when to begin.

They conclude that the Fed cannot be certain to what level it should aim to ultimately raise its key rate. But this equilibrium level, they say, has not fallen as low as claimed by those who warn of a “secular stagnation” in the United States.

Given the uncertainty, “there may be benefits to waiting to raise the nominal rate until we actually see some evidence of labor market pressure and increases in inflation,” wrote the economists, including Jan Hatzius of Goldman Sachs and Ethan Harris of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

They suggest a “later but steeper normalization path” for rate rises than the Fed’s own predictions, which imply the first hike around mid-2015 followed by more. Under median forecasts for Fed policymakers, the fed funds rate would hit about 1 percent by year end and 2.5 percent a year later.

U.S. SECULAR STAGNATION ‘UNCONVINCING’

Fed Chair Janet Yellen said on Wednesday “we don’t yet know what the new normal is” in terms of growth.

But the paper offered an optimistic defense of U.S. resilience in the face of a growing chorus of pessimists, including former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who have argued that persistently weak demand for capital means Americans need to get used to a less muscular economy.

The authors wrote in their 80-page paper that this secular stagnation theory is “unpersuasive,” arguing temporary factors like household savings and fiscal tightening made the recovery from recession slower than expected.

Mester also critiqued the paper at the forum attended among others by former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke and the second-in-commands at the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan.

Mester said economists were more apt to estimate how raising rates too soon would have on employment and lost output, “but they are less likely to quantify the costs of waiting too long.”

The paper cited decades worth of data from many countries to conclude that, contrary to much economic theory, trend economic growth is not a clear determinant of where a central bank should aim to settle its policy rate over the long run.

In an acknowledgement that the U.S. economy may not be able to grow at its pre-recession rate, in recent years Fed officials have slightly lowered their forecasts of this equilibrium rate from a longstanding assumption of 4 percent.

The co-authors, including professors James Hamilton and Kenneth West of the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggest it has fallen only slightly to perhaps 3-4 percent.

Dudley, a permanent voter on monetary policy and a close ally of Yellen, said the fed funds rate will likely settle around 3.5 percent.

Using Fed computer models, the paper suggested that rates should rise about six months later than otherwise planned, and that the pace of hikes should be one-third faster, leading to a modest overshooting of the equilibrium level.

The Fed, the ECB and others have slashed borrowing costs to record levels and purchased trillions of dollars in bonds to boost inflation and kick-start recovery from the 2007-2009 recession. Investors expect the Fed to be first among major central banks to tighten, later this year.

(Additional reporting by Howard Schneider and Michael Flaherty; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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Former AIG head Benmosche dies; led insurer after bailout


NEW YORK (Reuters) – Robert Benmosche, who took the helm of insurer American International Group (AIG.N) after a massive government bailout at the height of the financial crisis, died on Friday at 70 after a battle with lung cancer.

Benmosche is credited with steering AIG through the turbulent period following its near collapse and rescue by the U.S. government. During his tenure, which started in August 2009, AIG fully repaid the $182.3 billion government bailout it received in 2008 to stave off bankruptcy.

Benmosche, who stepped down in September 2014, weathered intense scrutiny and was sharp-tongued at times, referring to federal officials as “those crazies down in Washington.”

Critics often likened the former CEO, who also tangled with then-New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo over bonuses paid to AIG staff after the bailout, to a bull in a china shop.

“I can be – I can break things,” he said in an interview at his villa in Croatia in August 2009, when asked about his sometimes pugnacious manner shortly after taking the AIG job.

That was about 11 months after the insurer was brought to its knees because of a unit that sold credit-default swap contracts on risky securities, as well as other investments in subprime mortgage-backed securities.

Benmosche also often defended AIG employees from public criticism of the company and its role in the financial crisis, which helped trigger the worst recession in the United States in 70 years.

“A lot of (employees) feel hurt, embarrassed, a lot of people have lived in fear because of what I call lynch mobs with pitchforks,” he said in the Reuters interview.

That defense of AIG employees won him praise from his workers. After Benmosche was diagnosed with cancer in late 2010, employees would tear up when discussing his illness.

“Bob was a brilliant man who brought tremendous leadership, energy, passion, and tenacity to his job. At AIG, we will honor his legacy by continuing to focus on integrity and performance. He will be deeply missed,” said Robert S. Miller, chairman of AIG’s board of directors.

Benmosche was CEO of MetLife Inc (MET.N) from 1998 to 2006. He came out of retirement to lead AIG, which announced his death in a statement on Friday.

Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who built AIG into a global financial-services powerhouse during nearly 40 years at its helm, told Reuters on Friday that he had recommended Benmosche to the U.S. government when it was looking for a new chief.

“He was a good man, strong, knowledgeable and honorable – everything we look for in a CEO,” said Greenberg, who was chair of AIG from 1967 to 2005, before being forced out.

Benmosche said an AIG failure could be devastating for the United States and other countries.

“Some of us need to come out of retirement – who have done this before – to help deal with the crisis,” Benmosche said to Reuters in 2009. “If I sit here, I just felt that there are going to be continuing problems. I felt I had some of the skills necessary to fix the problems of AIG in particular and it made sense to come back.”

Benmosche, who had undergone treatment for lung cancer since 2010, announced his intention to leave AIG in June of last year. He did so in September, and was succeeded as president and CEO by Peter Hancock.

Benmosche, who died at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, is survived by his wife Denise, three children, three siblings, and six grandchildren.

The Brooklyn-born Benmosche prided himself on a reputation for toughness. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Alfred University in Alfred, New York, later serving in Korea as a lieutenant in the United States Army Signal Corps.

(Reporting by Luciana Lopez and Jennifer Ablan; writing by David Gaffen; editing by Christian Plumb)

Article source: http://feeds.reuters.com/~r/reuters/businessNews/~3/hAEuOKbyTY8/story01.htm

Wall Street ends down after data; posts strong gains for month


NEW YORK (Reuters) – The SP 500 posted its best monthly gain since October 2011 on Friday, but U.S. stocks ended lower for the day as U.S. economic growth slowed more sharply than initially thought in the fourth quarter.

The SP 500 gained 5.5 percent for the month, while the Nasdaq rose 7.1 percent, its best monthly performance since January 2012. The strong gains have pushed the Nasdaq within striking distance of the 5,000 mark and record highs set in March 2000.

A separate economic report showed a gauge of business activity in the U.S. Midwest dropped to its lowest reading since July 2009 in February.

“We started off with the GDP report which was a bit underwhelming. That maybe set a tone for the market that it wasn’t wildly ebullient,” said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.

Apple (AAPL.O), down 1.5 percent at $128.46, weighed on both the SP 500 and Nasdaq. Investors may have been taking profits ahead of Apple’s expected unveiling of its smartwatch on March 9, said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst, Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.

Among other decliners, J.C. Penney (JCP.N) dropped 6.8 percent to $8.50 after the retailer posted a surprise quarterly loss and forecast small margin improvements this year.

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI fell 81.72 points, or 0.45 percent, to 18,132.7, the SP 500 .SPX lost 6.24 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,104.5 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC dropped 24.36 points, or 0.49 percent, to 4,963.53.

After a sluggish start to the year, stocks rebounded sharply in February. The Dow rose 5.6 percent in the month, its best monthly performance since January 2013.

Shares of Monster Beverage (MNST.O) jumped 13.1 percent to $141.12, the biggest percentage gainer in the SP 500 and Nasdaq. Thomson Reuters data shows SP 500 earnings increased 6.8 percent in the fourth quarter, above expectations at the start of this quarter.

Bank of America (BAC.N) shares lost 1.4 percent to $15.81. The company said two members of its board of directors and its chief accounting officer will be leaving the company in coming weeks. UBS also cut its rating on the stock to “neutral,” from “buy.”

Volume was again low. About 6.5 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 6.8 billion average for the month, according to BATS Global Markets.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,567 to 1,485, for a 1.06-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,694 issues fell and 1,048 advanced, for a 1.62-to-1 ratio favoring decliners. The SP 500 posted 26 new 52-week highs and 2 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 93 new highs and 27 new lows.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)

Article source: http://feeds.reuters.com/~r/reuters/businessNews/~3/lBuC7FD_WOk/story01.htm

U.S. economy slowed in fourth quarter, but growth outlook still favorable


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. economic growth braked more sharply than initially thought in the fourth quarter amid a moderate increase in business inventories and a wider trade deficit, but strong domestic demand brightened the outlook.

Gross domestic product expanded at a 2.2 percent annual pace, revised down from the 2.6 percent pace estimated last month, the Commerce Department said on Friday. The economy grew at a 5 percent rate in the third quarter.

Growth is poised to pick up in the first quarter now that the threat of an inventory overhang has diminished. However, an exceptionally cold and snowy February, as well as reductions in oil and gas drilling, could limit the pace of expansion.

“The composition of growth is looking much better, we are setting up for a solid quarter for the economy. The first quarter is still work in progress,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Businesses accumulated $88.4 billion worth of inventory in the fourth quarter, far less than the $113.1 billion the government had estimated last month.

That resulted in the GDP growth contribution from inventories being cut to one-tenth of a percentage point from 0.8 percentage point previously.

The moderate stock accumulation came as consumer spending grew at its quickest pace since early 2006.

With households bullish about the economy’s prospects, thanks to a tightening labor market and lower gasoline prices, consumer spending is likely to remain at lofty levels this year.

A second report showed the University of Michigan’s final February reading on the overall index on consumer sentiment was 95.4, higher than the initial reading of 93.6.

While that was a retreat from January’s reading of 98.1, it was the second highest level since January 2007.

“A more confident consumer is likely to spend more on big ticket items and other discretionary items, and looking ahead, we expect consumer spending … to outpace 2014,” said Kristin Reynolds, an economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.

First-quarter growth estimates currently range between a rate of 2.4 percent and 3 percent.

U.S. stocks were little changed, while prices for U.S. government debt rose. The dollar was flat against a basket of currencies.

ROBUST CONSUMER SPENDING

Growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, was revised down by one-tenth of a percentage point to a 4.2 percent pace in the fourth quarter, still the fastest since the first quarter of 2006.

In another positive for the economy, business investment was not as weak as previously reported, with spending on equipment revised to show it rising at a 0.9 percent rate instead of the previously reported 1.9 percent contraction.

Growth in spending on intellectual products was the strongest since early 2000. All signs point to an acceleration in business investment in the first quarter, with data on Thursday showing a rebound in spending intentions in January after four straight months of declines.

But lower oil prices have caused a drop in drilling and exploration activity. The impact is yet to be felt in the data.

Another report on Friday showed factory activity in the Midwest in February plunged to its lowest level since July 2009.

Activity was likely dampened by bad weather and a long-running labor dispute at West Coast ports, which has since been resolved.

The Commerce Department data showed a key measure of domestic demand was revised to a 3.2 percent pace for the fourth quarter from the previous 2.8 percent rate. It was the third straight quarter of growth above a 3 percent rate.

Strong domestic demand sucked in more imports than previously reported in the fourth quarter, resulting in a trade deficit, which subtracted 1.15 percentage points from GDP growth instead of the previously reported 1.02 percentage point drag.

Despite the strong consumption, inflation pressures were muted, with the personal consumption expenditures price index falling at a 0.4 percent rate – the weakest reading since early 2009. The PCE index was previously reported to have declined at a 0.5 percent pace.

Excluding food and energy, prices rose at an unrevised 1.1 percent pace, the slowest since the second quarter of 2013.

The low inflation environment suggests little urgency for the Federal Reserve to start raising interest rates from near zero, where they have been since December 2008.

Residential construction spending in the fourth quarter was revised down, while government spending was not as weak as previously reported.

Strong job gains are expected to lift housing this year. A third report on Friday from the National Association of Realtors showed contracts to purchase previously owned homes rose 1.7 percent in January to their highest level in 1-1/2 years.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

Article source: http://feeds.reuters.com/~r/reuters/businessNews/~3/kllPRjQR1bI/story01.htm

Southwest Airlines nears end of inspections that grounded 128 planes


(Reuters) – Southwest Airlines Co (LUV.N) said on Friday it has finished inspecting 115 of 128 planes that it briefly pulled out of service on Tuesday when it discovered maintenance checks were overdue, and it expects to complete the rest this weekend.

The Dallas-based carrier said the inspections, focused on the backup hydraulic systems of its Boeing Co (BA.N) 737-700 aircraft, have not resulted in additional repairs.

Southwest voluntarily removed the aircraft from service and disclosed the matter on Tuesday to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which then said it could operate the aircraft for a maximum five days while it completed the checks.

The FAA said on Friday it does not discuss details of ongoing investigations.

“While all oversight failures are unwelcome, this scale of maintenance-related failure is hardly unique,” aviation industry consultant Robert Mann said in an email, adding that the FAA’s response on Tuesday “suggests it was not a safety-critical issue.”

The checks resulted in about 80 Southwest flight cancellations on Tuesday and about 15 cancellations on Wednesday but no others since. The airline said winter weather caused additional cancellations this week.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in New York; editing by Matthew Lewis)

Article source: http://feeds.reuters.com/~r/reuters/businessNews/~3/VH-lSzj2Xt8/story01.htm

Icahn’s investment fund posts first loss since 2008 on oil plunge


NEW YORK (Reuters) – Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn’s publicly traded investment fund posted its first annual loss since 2008 last year, undone by plummeting oil prices, the company said in a regulatory filing on Friday.

Icahn Enterprises LP (IEP.O) lost $373 million, or $3.08 per depositary unit, in 2014, with much of it due to a loss of $478 million in the fourth quarter. Results were hurt by a halving of oil prices between June and December amid a global supply glut.

The company earned a profit of $1.03 billion in 2013.

The company’s loss in the fourth quarter through December of $478 million follows a year-earlier profit of $222 million, as revenue fell 31 percent to $3.37 billion.

“This year’s results were obviously disappointing, with the precipitous decline in oil prices impacting the profitability of many of our segments,” Icahn said in a statement.

“I believe a great amount of profit in the next few years will be made by those who hold positions in energy companies. However, I also believe that oil prices will continue to decline in the near term.”

The performance of Apple Inc (AAPL.O), the largest position in Icahn’s investment segment, “softened the impact of the decline in oil prices and hopefully will continue to do so,” Icahn said. Apple’s shares have soared 62 percent since January 2014.

Icahn, one of Apple’s top 10 investors, recently urged the iPhone maker to buy back more shares and raise its dividend. Apple said last April it would return more than $130 billion to shareholders by the end of 2015.

For all of 2014, Icahn Enterprises posted revenue of $19.2 billion.

Among the stocks in the Icahn portfolio are Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK.N), which has dropped nearly 34 percent since January 2014, and Transocean Ltd. (RIG.N), which has dropped nearly 68 percent over the same period.

“I hope and believe that Icahn Enterprises will be strongly profitable in 2015 and beyond, continuing our excellent long term track record of profitability,” Icahn said in his statement.

(Additional reporting by David Gaffen; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Article source: http://feeds.reuters.com/~r/reuters/businessNews/~3/HT2b4_ocMQw/story01.htm

Exclusive: Greece set to get green light for EBRD support


LONDON (Reuters) – Greece is expected to get the green light early next week for what could add up to over a billion euros of funding support and investments from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, according to sources at the bank.

The former Greek government put in a request late last year to become an EBRD ‘country of operation’ and make it eligible for the development bank’s support, but the process was put on hold during the uncertainty of the country’s recent elections.

However this week’s four-month Greek aid extension by the euro zone has put it back on track and EBRD sources said the bank’s shareholders — 64 countries plus the European Union and European Investment Bank — were voting on the proposal on Friday.

An EBRD spokesman declined to comment but the sources who spoke to Reuters said approval was likely to come on the grounds that Greece would be classed as a “temporary” recipient of EBRD funds up until around 2020.

That would be similar to the 500-700 million euro, six-year plan given to Cyprus which became the first euro zone bailout country to get EBRD support last year. Since then the EBRD has taken a sizable stake in one of the country’s strained banks.

“Yes,(Greece should get approval),” said one source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions. “But the challenge is to define the mandate in a sufficiently narrow way and to make it temporary like in the Cyprus case.”

The biggest of the EBRD’s shareholders are G7 governments who wield almost 60 percent of the voting power. For Greece to be approved, it needs backing from two-thirds of 66 shareholders and at least three-quarters of the overall voting power.

As in Cyprus’s case, Greece is being helped considerably by the fact all 19 euro zone countries will vote as a bloc in favor of the plan, and it is also expected to get support from most of the G7 and other EU EBRD members.

For some of the bank’s shareholders however the move into the euro zone’s Mediterranean trouble spots departs from the EBRD’s core mandate.

The EBRD was created in 1991 originally to invest in the former Soviet bloc countries of eastern Europe to rebuild their economies and improve communist-era infrastructure.

And though it has expanded its reach in recent years to include Turkey, Mongolia and the economies affected directly or indirectly by the Arab Spring such as Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, some feel that any decision by the EBRD to invest in the world’s most advanced currency bloc stretches its remit.

The decision also comes at a difficult time for the bank. It has just announced its first annual losses since the height of the financial crisis and voted after the unrest in Ukraine to halt new lending in Russia which has traditionally been its biggest market.

Going into Greece could help fill some of the gap left by Russia’s exclusion but other countries are also keen for the EBRD’s support.

Turkey is attracting more EBRD investments and on Friday the bank’s director for Poland told Reuters it could up its spending there by as much as 30 percent this year.

(Reporting by Marc Jones; Editing by Sophie Walker)

Article source: http://feeds.reuters.com/~r/reuters/businessNews/~3/pwZT8TlYNg0/story01.htm