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Financial crisis fears grow in Ireland, Portugal

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; A08

LONDON - European officials on Friday scrambled to ease a brewing market panic over financial troubles in Ireland, Portugal and Spain, as speculation mounted that one or more of those nations may be forced to follow in the footsteps of nearly bankrupt Greece and ask for an international bailout.

The bonds of hard-hit Ireland in particular have taken a severe beating in recent days on the back of fears that its financial woes are reaching critical levels. But investors have especially moved to dump bonds on the heels of a German-backed plan that might see bond-holders take a loss if Ireland, or any other troubled nation in the European Union, is forced to ask for aid as Greece did last spring.

The idea, German officials argue, is that investors should share the burden if countries that have over-borrowed and overspent now need financial rescues from their bigger, wealthier neighbors.

That threat - coupled with the deteriorating financial and political situation in Ireland in particular - is raising a red flag in Europe, with investors this week moving to dump Irish and Portuguese bonds. Both nations are struggling to reignite their economies while at the same time attempting to slash runaway government spending.

Fears are additionally driving up borrowing rates for larger economies such as Spain, which is also facing a massive budget deficit, as well as Italy, the third-largest economy among the 16 nations that share the euro as a currency, as well as one of the most heavily indebted.

But in a statement issued at the G-20 summit of major industrial powers in Seoul, European financial chiefs sought to clarify the still-fluid plan for any potential bailout. They said Friday that the policy may only involve a voluntary commitment by investors to take some kind of loss, rather than a requirement to do so. In addition, the policy wouldn't come into effect until 2013, meaning current bondholders would not be affected.

That was enough to ease some of the market concerns, with bond pressure easing somewhat Friday on Ireland and other nations.

"Whatever the debate within the euro area about the future [bailouts] and the potential private sector involvement . . . we are clear that this does not apply to any outstanding debt and any program under current instruments," the finance ministers of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Britain said in the statement.

Nevertheless, Irish and Portuguese bonds are now so hard-hit, analysts say, that markets appear to be pricing a default on at least some of their obligations to investors.

Such a move could undermine the value of the euro, which had fallen in recent days before rebounding Friday, and cause a new round of political wrangling within the European Union about whether some of its more financially troubled members should be forced to abandon the euro and readopt their own national currencies.

It happens as new figures released Friday showed economic growth cooling across the eurozone, rising only 0.4 percent in the second quarter, or modestly lower than analysts had predicted.

One problem facing the region, analyst say, is that solutions being tried by nations such as Ireland to right their finances don't appear to be working.

Facing a devastating recession and real estate bust in the wake of the global financial crisis, Ireland has sought to rein in government spending by pushing through harsh budget cuts.

But in recent months, the government has also been forced to spend billions more to control a roiling banking crisis, driving up the Irish budget deficit to unsustainable levels equal to 32 percent of the national economy.

Although the Irish government is seeking to reduce spending even more with a new round of draconian cuts set for approval in parliament next month, the reduction in government spending is contributing to a still-harsh economic downtown there that is only making its financial situation worse.

As a result, some analysts now think Ireland may have no choice but to request a bailout from the European Union, and, possibly, the International Monetary Fund - speculation that Irish officials again strongly denied Friday.

"I think we're likely to see more turbulence in the weeks ahead, especially as they try to approve the new Irish budget in December," said Gavan Nolan, research analyst at London-based Markit Group. "The market is getting mixed messages from the European Union on how they are going to handle the problem. There needs to be more clarity."

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