The danger is most pressing in Italy, where the rate the nation must pay to borrow money for a decade rose Friday for the fifth straight day, to 7.23 percent from 6.64 percent a week ago. The increase came in an auction of new bonds for which demand was weak — pushing the rate the Italian government must pay to borrow money for two years up four-tenths of a percentage point, a remarkably big one-day jump, to 7.5 percent.
With debt totaling 120 percent of Italy’s economy, higher rates could create a dangerous, self-reinforcing spiral for the country — the higher its borrowing costs, the more onerous the interest payments. That in turn increases the likelihood of economy-cratering tax increases and spending cuts or a catastrophic default.
Over recent days, the sense of impending threat has even spread to nations that have generally sound finances. Standard & Poor’s cut its long-term credit rating for Belgium to AA on Friday from AA+, expressing concern that the nation may have to engage in costly bank bailouts that will strain its finances.
Nations that have seen a sharp run-up in their borrowing costs in recent days also include France, Austria and Finland.
Investors are selling off bonds of almost all European nations out of fear that a self-reinforcing cycle is taking hold in which higher borrowing costs further strain governments’ finances, threatening losses among the banks that own government debt and further slowing an economy that is already on the brink of recession.
When this same set of circumstances has developed in the past two years, some combination of stronger European nations and the European Central Bank has acted to promise a wall of money to stop the cycle in its tracks.
Today, however, “it appears Europe’s fiscally stronger sovereigns are reaching their limits in terms of supporting their fiscally weaker counterparts,” said Piero Ghezzi, an economist at Barclays Capital.
In other words, after creating and then expanding the size of the European Financial Stability Fund, and after almost 200 billion euros’ worth (or more than $260 billion) of bond purchases by the ECB, both the governments and the central bank are saying “no more” until Italy and other weaker countries make major changes to their tax and regulatory systems.
European leaders have, however, been discussing in more detail ways they might integrate their fiscal policies more extensively. Successfully doing so could instill investor confidence and give the ECB greater comfort in using its power to print money to backstop the continent’s finances.
But many residents of the countries involved are reluctant to back their neighbors’ debts. A poll by the German television network ZDF found that 79 percent of Germans opposed jointly issued euro bonds, according to the Associated Press, compared with 15 percent who favored the idea.
Mario Draghi, who began his tenure as president of the ECB less than a month ago, has been reluctant to engage in open-ended purchases, for fear that they would come at the cost of the central bank’s independence and spark inflation in the longer run.
A senior ECB official on Friday argued that the solution to the crisis lies in European nations linking their tax and spending policies more closely to each other.
“To ensure fiscal discipline, all planned deficits of more than 3 percent of GDP and those in excess of a country’s medium-term objective would need to be approved by all euro-area governments,” Jose Manuel Gonzalez-Paramo, a member of the ECB executive board, said at a speech in London.
In the near future, investors will be carefully watching scheduled auctions of Italian bonds on Monday and Tuesday and Spanish bonds on Thursday. If buyers show up as usual and buy the bonds at reasonably normal prices, it could help instill confidence. By contrast, if buyers eschew the auctions, driving the prices of the bonds down and interest rates up, the crisis could deepen.
European Union finance ministers will be meeting Tuesday, but analysts lacked confidence that they will make progress on the core issues facing Europe.
“They seem set to focus on long-term governance and sanctions to prevent this situation from arising again instead of giving troubled governments immediate relief,” said John Higgins, an economist at Capital Economics.