April 23, 2018
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Euro under pressure as EU summit optimism fades


FRANKFURT, Germany — Investors have soured on the latest attempt to resolve the European debt crisis.

Stocks tumbled around the world Wednesday, the euro slid to an 11-month low and borrowing costs spiked for heavily indebted Italy. The markets’ jitters reflect rising doubts about the deal European Union leaders reached at a summit last Friday in Brussels.

The agreement requires the 17 countries that use the euro and nine other EU countries to balance their budgets and gives the International Monetary Fund up to (euro) 200 ($264 billion) to help countries with high debt loads.

But there’s growing disappointment that the new EU treaty:

— Doesn’t reduce existing government debt levels.

— Doesn’t do much to promote the long-term growth that would shrink those burdens.

— Doesn’t provide enough money to reassure financial markets that Italy and Spain can keep paying their bills.

“Fiscal discipline is needed in the long term, but it doesn’t address today’s crisis,” says Athanasios Vamvakidis, head European currency strategist at Merrill Lynch-Bank of America. “There isn’t enough money to stop the run on sovereign bonds of Italy and Spain. Investors don’t want to buy their debt.”

It was also unclear how the agreement, which is being written into a treaty, would be enforced and whether some of the countries that signed on might end up dropping out because of resistance to budget cuts back home. Britain has rejected the deal.

“Markets like quick fixes and have no patience with the length of the political processes,” says Gianni Toniolo, a professor of economics and history at Duke University.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi praised the agreement made in Brussels. But so far he has rejected calls for the bank to make large-scale purchases of European bonds, something financial markets are hoping for and that would help put downward pressure on government borrowing costs.

The Dow Jones industrials fell 131 points, or 1.1 percent, to 11,823. The euro traded below $1.30 for the first time since January 12, hitting a low of $1.2973. Some of that is loss of confidence in the assets of the 17 euro nations, but it’s also the result of two quarter-point interest rate cuts from the European Central Bank. The cuts lower the return on euro-denominated holdings and can induce investors to move money elsewhere.

European stock markets fell broadly. Germany’s DAX dropped 1.7 percent; France’s main stock index lost 3.3 percent.

Italy held its last bond auction of the year on Wednesday and it didn’t go well. Investors demanded even more money to lend to the eurozone’s third-largest economy. Italy paid 6.47 percent interest to borrow (euro) 3 billion ($3.95 billion) for five years, up from 6.30 percent just a month ago.

The higher rates reflected investors’ fears over the inadequacy of last week’s agreement to keep eurozone governments from piling up more debt in the future. Italy has a staggering (euro) 1.9 trillion ($2.5 trillion) in outstanding debt, and its economy is too large for Europe to bail out. Greece, Ireland and Portugal have been bailed out.

European officials are scheduled to meet Thursday to work out the details of the treaty negotiated in Brussels, according to one European official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential.

The new treaty aims to impose tighter rules on how much money eurozone governments can spend. EU leaders agreed to limit deficits to 0.5 percent of economic output in regular economic times and to better enforce penalties against countries whose deficits rise too high.

The treaty will not be signed until March, at the earliest.

Several knotty issues must be resolved, including how budget rules contained in the new treaty will be reconciled with those in the basic treaty of the European Union, which remains unchanged. Another detail to be sorted out is whether countries signing on to the new treaty can legally rely on EU institutions, such as the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, to enforce its rules.

Governments and national parliaments are also leery of transferring too much sovereignty to Brussels or their fellow euro members.

“The process of negotiating the final deal to suit all will only add to doubts about its relevance in the long run — meanwhile the immediate crisis continues,” said Elisabeth Afseth, an analyst at Evolution Securities.

Meanwhile, European banks are under mounting pressure. The German government announced Wednesday it was reactivating its financial sector rescue fund. And the European Banking Authority said last week that the continent’s banks need to raise about (euro) 115 billion ($149 billion) to protect lenders against market turmoil, including bad government debt.

German banks need to raise (euro) 13.1 billion ($17 billion); the country’s second-biggest bank, Commerzbank AG, has been told it needs to raise (euro) 5.3 billion ($6.89 billion).

Last week’s summit did come up with a commitment from EU governments to loan up to (euro) 200 ($264 billion) to the International Monetary Fund, which could help out the eurozone. Yet not all countries have made firm commitments to do this, and some poorer countries in Eastern Europe that do not use the euro are not happy about being asked to help pay for richer countries’ mistakes.

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