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Exclusive: Euro zone mulls help for Portugal, Ireland market return - sources

The Euro sculpture is partially reflected in a puddle on a cobblestone pavement in front of the headquarters of the European Central Bank (E
The Euro sculpture is partially reflected in a puddle on a cobblestone pavement in front of the headquarters of the European Central Bank (E

By Matthias Sobolewski and Padraic Halpin

BERLIN/DUBLIN (Reuters) - Euro zone governments are discussing ways to help Portugal and Ireland return to the capital markets swiftly and have voiced a preference for delaying the repayment of bailout loans by the two states, sources familiar with discussions said on Wednesday.

The sources quoted from a 15-page discussion paper from the European Commission and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) that was debated last week by deputy finance ministers from the euro zone.

Finance ministers from the so-called Eurogroup may discuss the matter at their next meeting in Brussels on Monday.

"They are favouring an extension of maturities of the EFSF and EFSM loans in order to avoid bottlenecks in paying back (the loans)," one of the sources with knowledge of the document told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ireland has received 67.5 billion euros ($88.5 billion) in its international bailout, while Portugal got 79.5 billion. Both countries were taken off financial markets and are undergoing tough structural reform programmes in return for the aid. Ireland's program will expire this year, Portugal's next year.

A timely full return to financial markets would be a success for the euro zone, seeking to showcase that their bailouts have worked in a crisis that has sent unemployment rocketing in some countries and has led to an election standoff in Italy.

But Ireland and Portugal have asked euro zone finance ministers to help them stay off the programmes once they expire. Dublin also hopes Europe's new ESM rescue fund will take stakes in its almost fully state-owned banking sector off its hands next year once it is permitted to do so.

BACKLOAD REPAYMENT

Under the preferred option, Ireland and Portugal would be allowed to backload their loan repayments, but remain within the timeframe of their existing overall schedule.

That would imply no substantial change to the aid agreements, and therefore would not require Bundestag approval, one of the sources said.

Another source said Germany was blocking a deal over concerns it would need to get approval from the Bundestag's budget committee or plenary.

The second-best option would allow both recipient countries to delay paying back the loans beyond that schedule, by 2-1/2 years, five years or more than five years, though that would be even more likely to require Bundestag approval.

Were Ireland's EFSM/EFSF loans to be extended in 2015 and 2016, the amount of Irish debt maturing in those years would fall to 5.6 billion euros from 10.6 billion currently and 12.1 billion euros from 16.3 billion respectively.

A third option may be to provide both countries with a precautionary credit line through the ESM, a condition for tapping the European Central Bank's Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme.

Portugal and Ireland have begun returning to debt markets and Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said last week his country plans to apply for the OMT plan but not just yet.

The ECB announced the OMT last September to counter investor fears of a euro zone break-up but it has yet to deploy it, with some policymakers at the bank preferring to keep it under wraps. Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme

Ireland has begun to gradually return to capital markets, plans to launch a new 10-year benchmark issue ahead of the resumption of regular bond auctions planned for later this year.

The country has already raised a quarter of its long-term debt target for the year in January when it sold more than 2.5 billion euros of five-year debt.

Portugal dipped its toe back in the market in January with a 5-year bond for the first time since its 2011 bailout. It is expected to try a 10-year bond later in the year.

The final two options, neither of which was likely to be agreed, would foresee an extension to the programmes for Ireland and Portugal, without increasing the funds, or completely new bailout programs.

(Reporting by Matthias Sobolewski, Annika Breidthardt in Berlin and Padraic Halpin in Dublin, Editing by Noah Barkin, Ron Askew)

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