Spain latest to take hit in European debt crisis

Europe’s debt crisis continued expanding on Thursday when Spain paid record interest rates and was unable to raise as much money as it had hoped in a bond auction.

The combination raised fears of what officials consider a doomsday scenario: a situation in which even governments that seemingly do the right things are driven toward insolvency by runaway distrust in the euro zone as a whole.

As politicians in Italy, Greece and elsewhere pledged renewed efforts to tame their public finances, Europe’s fourth-largest economy was pummeled in a bond auction despite its effort to play the part of good soldier in the euro crisis. Spain largely has stayed ahead of events in enacting economic and other policy changes, has avoided the divisive politics that have wracked nations such as Italy and Greece, and has debt levels below that of Germany and other euro-region stalwarts.

But the country was nevertheless forced to pay an interest rate of nearly 7 percent on new 10-year bonds Thursday and raised only $4.8 billion instead of the expected $5.5 billion.

With regional borrowing costs rising almost across the board, with the sole exception in Germany, calls are intensifying for the government in Berlin or the European Central Bank to step in more forcefully to buy more bonds or to help finance Europe’s new bailout fund.

Germany, with its economic power, and the ECB, with its open-ended balance sheet, are considered by many analysts to be the only two entities with the financial and political capacity to restore some sense of stability.

As the region’s economy slips toward a possible recession, euro-area governments face massive refinancing needs in coming months. The governments of the six largest economies will need to raise about $1.4 trillion to refinance bonds coming due in 2012, in addition to tens of billions more to cover government deficits.

In Italy, premier Mario Monti was given a vote of confidence in what he called his new “government of national commitment,” pledging an era of shared sacrifice and austerity but with the promise of renewed growth.

In Frankfurt, the Institute of International Finance held talks with banks and other investors in Greek bonds in hopes of finalizing plans for a 50 percent reduction in that country’s debts.

Despite the intense political efforts across the region, the trust of investors appeared to be fast evaporating.

Pension funds, insurance companies and other large pools of money that have been a staple source of funding for euro-region governments are steadily withdrawing. Even within the 17-nation zone that uses the euro currency, the trend is for firms to pull back behind their own national borders for fear of what might happen if the currency union cracks apart, said Andreas Utermann, chief investment officer for Allianz Global Investors, a large, Munich-based asset manager.

“You have a massive portfolio rebalancing” in which fear of the political risks surrounding the euro have outstripped analysis of the economic situation in individual countries, Utermann said. “Money’s going back home.”

It’s a trend that may be hard to reverse in the short term, absent major intervention by the ECB or a political breakthrough that more closely combines the resources of the 17 nations into an economic union. Collectively, the region rivals the annual economic output of the United States and has massive amounts of household and corporate wealth and government assets to back its debts.

Yet the inability to share or deploy those resources convincingly has left even seemingly responsible actors such as Spain facing trouble. The country likes to style itself as the “Germany of southern Europe” and before the 2008 financial crisis was among the few euro-region countries close to complying with the currency union’s debt and deficit rules.

As evidence of its conviction, the country recently passed a balanced-budget amendment to its constitution and has tried to stick close to promised deficit targets.

But its economy is slowing along with the rest of Europe, and its budget shortfall this year will be larger than expected — evidence that even good intentions can be thrown off course in the absence of economic growth.

The opposition conservative party is widely expected to win parliamentary elections Sunday with a large-enough mandate to make needed cuts to social programs and to change labor-market and other regulations in hopes of boosting growth. In downtown Madrid, the party’s blue banners flap from light poles while the waning Socialist party’s campaign materials are nowhere to be found.

Spain’s outgoing prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, on Thursday joined calls for more forceful European action, adding his voice to those of French and other leaders worried the situation may be slipping beyond their control.

“At this point, it doesn’t really matter what individual countries do,” said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Birnbaum reported from Madrid.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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