Eurozone Finance Ministers Prepare For Fridays Meeting

Saturday 07-04-2012

Eurozone finance ministers are ready to sign off on an increase in the region’s financial firewall this week, with concerns about Spain’s fiscal position banishing any complacency that the currency bloc’s debt crisis is a thing of the past. Finland and Germany were initially reluctant to endorse an increase in the firewall’s resources, but both have now indicated that they are prepared to back the move when finance ministers meet in Copenhagen on Friday and Saturday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in Berlin yesterday, gave veiled approval, saying she could imagine the euro zone’s temporary crisis fund, the EFSF, running in parallel with the permanent fund to create a bigger facility. Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen did the same on Saturday. “We are ready to find a compromise,” Katainen told Reuters on the sidelines of a gathering of financial, political and trade leaders in Saariselka, a resort in Finnish Lapland. The European Commission has prepared three options for boosting the firewall, all of which rely on ways of combining the EFSF’s €440bn with the €500bn in the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which will come into force from July this year. Officials indicate that the most likely outcome is an endorsement of an option that essentially takes what is left in the EFSF after bailouts to Portugal, Ireland and Greece with the ESM to create a ‘super-fund’ of around €740bn. “That will take several years, and then the ESM will stand alone with the €500bn,” Merkel told a conference of her ruling Christian Democrats. Under the proposal, the overall capacity would return to €500bn in July 2013, when the EFSF expires. “That looks like the most plausible option, although it’s still going to be hard to sell to the German parliament,” said Carsten Brzeski, an economic analyst at ING in Brussels. “It would clearly do the job as long as it was followed up by some action by the IMF and G20,” he said. The IMF will meet in Washington from April 20 to 22 and is expected to agree to increase its own crisis-fighting resources as long as Europe has taken significant action first. In its options paper, obtained by Reuters, the European Commission indicated that creating a €740bn fund would provide “the necessary credibility to unlock an increase in IMF resources”, although that will depend on the IMF. European leaders have been debating what action to take on the firewall for months, with German and Finnish officials quietly sceptical about the need to boost resources given that the debt crisis has calmed since the European Central Bank summoned up over atn euros of three-year money for banks. Others argue that it is critical that the euro zone act now to bolster resources, capitalising on the relative calm in markets to show that the region is determined not to be complacent about getting its finances in order. “It is important that Europe is now completing its comprehensive crisis response,” Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, told reporters during the gathering in Lapland. “The next step is taking a convincing decision on the reinforcement of euro area firewalls, and I am confident that euro area member states will (in Copenhagen) reach a satisfactory compromise.” Bond market participants say it is already discounted that an agreement will be reached and the firewall will be bolstered. Anything short of that would be a disappointment. Most pointedly, Spanish borrowing costs have picked up markedly since Madrid ripped up a budget deficit target agreed with Brussels. Both Italian and Spanish yields fell yesterday on reports Berlin was ready to agree to a stronger rescue fund for a limited time. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said on Saturday he was concerned about potential contagion from Spain if it didn’t keep its public finances in order. “(Spain) certainly made profound reform of the labour market but it did not pay the same attention to public finances,” Monti said at a conference in Italy. “This is causing us big concern because their yields are rising and it wouldn’t take much to recreate trends that could spread to us through contagion.” The Spanish government convinced the Commission this month to soften its budget deficit goal for 2012, shifting the target to a deficit of 5.3% rather than 4.4% to give it some room to focus on growth measures. It must still reduce it to 3.0% in 2013. “We’re pretty much looking at Spain as the next point of stress, the next point of weakness,” Peter Allwright, head of rates and currency at RWC Partners, which manages assets worth $4bn, said last week. The aim of bolstering the eurozone’s firewall is to create a fund big enough to handle problems in Spain and Italy should they follow Greece, Portugal and Ireland in needing bailouts. But part of it is also psychological — that a vast fund will convince financial markets the eurozone is doing everything necessary to calm the situation and restore confidence. Brzeski at ING expects Portugal to need another bailout, says Spain could need help “for two to three years” and Italy may need some “short-term relief”. Defaults are on the rise, much as consumer credit defaults are, as the recovery or the weakened economy chugs along more and more Americans are running out of money and are unable to balance their budgets causing defaults. The financial system, is not ready to absorb another shock. Compound this with the growing automobile lease abandonment and the auto loan defaults and increase repossessions. We have a triple threat to the banking system.   Unlike the boom years of the last decade, households will not be able to refinance credit card debt by further mortgaging homes, and consumers simply had to slow down. The notable exception continues to be autos, where an aging fleet helps increase sales, and higher education – much of the recent surge in consumer credit has not been on credit cards but loans to finance autos and higher education. Our fragile economy has fiends waiting for it at every turn, the Fed, Politicians, the Treasury and the Administration, have a difficult course to navigate over the coming months, with many problems out of our control. It seems that at present the US teams of economic and financial chiefs have actually done an outstanding job, turning things around, much to the surprise of most. Hopefully they can navigate the rapids and the rock shores before so that we can reach clear sailing.