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European ministers consider boosting bailout fund

Euro zone finance ministers will meet in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday as they are trying to solve the debt crisis that has rocked the currency bloc over the past year.

AP, Saturday 15 Jan 2011
Most analysts say the euro zone
Most analysts say the euro zone's current strategy to deal with the crisis has failed. (Photo: Reuters)
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Euro-zone finance ministers face one big question when they meet in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday: Are they willing to fundamentally change their strategy for solving the debt crisis that has rocked the currency bloc over the past year? Over the past week, calls to boost the euro zone's 750 billion euro ($1 trillion) bailout fund by expanding its size and perhaps more importantly  by giving it broader powers have grown louder.

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde told journalists Friday that she and her counterparts were discussing giving the fund the power to buy government bonds on the open market a move that would take pressure off countries that have seen bond prices fall and funding costs rise.

Belgium's Finance Minister Didier Reynders, meanwhile, said the size of the fund should be doubled, to 1.5 trillion euro ($2 trillion).

Jean Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central bank, and two top officials of the European Union's executive commission have also thrown their weight behind a new role for the bailout fund, which has so far been limited to providing rescue loans to cash-strapped countries.

The European Commission last week circulated a document among EU member states with some suggestions on how to broaden the scope of the fund beyond bailouts. But an EU official familiar with the document said talks were still at an early stage and that he didn't expect finance ministers to take big any big decisions next week. "The meeting will not achieve such a degree of detail," said the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity because of the early stage of the discussions.

Most analysts say the euro zone's current strategy to deal with the crisis has failed. That strategy sees countries bail out their struggling banks to then provide them with expensive rescue loans, conditioned on steep budget cuts, when they run out of money.

A 67.5 billion euro ($90 billion) bailout of Ireland necessary after massive capital injections for big banks pushed the country's budget deficit to almost one-third of economic output  didn't succeed in containing the crisis. Greece, which received a 110 billion euro ($147 billion) rescue loan, was on Friday downgraded by another rating agency, reflecting concern about the country's ability to pay off its debt amid a shrinking economy and falling government revenue.

Most economists expect Portugal to also ask for help soon, while markets are worried about the financial health of much larger Spain. Spain's economy makes up about 10 per cent of the euro zone's gross domestic product and bailing it out could easily overwhelm the existing facility.

"Maybe now they should see one needs a new approach," Daniel Gros, director of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies and a former economist for the International Monetary Fund, said of European policymakers' scramble to stop the crisis from spreading. "It's not so much the size of the fund, but what it's used for." Giving the bailout fund broader powers, such as directly intervening in financial markets in times of turmoil, or even providing short-term cash injections to re-capitalize wavering banks could attack the crisis at its roots, analysts say.

One big part of this new approach would be to let banks' debtors take losses if a firm is actually insolvent, and then quickly spend large sums of money buying up government and bank bonds to stop panic on financial markets, Gros said.
Germany so far has opposed significantly increasing the firing power of the existing bailout fund. But German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has raised the option of boosting the lending capacity of the euro zone's contribution to the fund so it actually reaches the advertised 440 billion euro ($580 billion).

Euro-zone governments make their contribution to the 750 billion euro ($1 trillion) fund by guaranteeing loans issued by the so-called European Financial Stability Facility. The remaining 310 billion euro ($415 billion) of the total fund come from the EU's executive Commission and the IMF.

However, because of the way the EFSF provides money to cash-strapped countries, it can actually lend out much less than 440 billion euro ($589 billion). Rather than giving direct loans, the facility sells bonds to investors, with the proceeds going to the government in trouble.

To get a triple-A credit rating for those bonds and make them attractive to wealthy investors governments committed to guarantee 120 per cent of their value, taking the amount it can actually lend out down to about 367 billion euro ($491 billion). On top of that, bailed out countries have to deposit a certain portion of the loans they receive "as a cash buffer" with the fund.
Schaeuble said boosting the fund so it can actually lend out 440 billion euro ($589 billion) would not represent an actual increase and Berlin has ruled out doing anything beyond that.

But analysts warn that the way the crisis had developed, governments might soon be force to go further.
"We do these things only after we have denied even thinking about them," said Gros.

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