U.S. raises pressure for euro zone crisis action

The United States raised pressure on euro zone leaders to take decisive action to solve the region's debt crisis, notably by lowering troubled members' borrowing costs, on the eve of a crucial European Central Bank meeting.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the euro zone must take steps including "bringing down interest rates in the countries that are reforming and making sure those banking systems can provide the credit those economies need".

He made the comments in an interview with Bloomberg Television recorded in Los Angeles on Tuesday, a day after he flew specially to Germany to meet Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and ECB President Mario Draghi. The interview was broadcast on Wednesday.

Italy and Spain, the euro zone's fourth and third largest economies, risk losing access to credit markets as the risk premium investors demand to hold their bonds rather than safe-haven German debt has spiraled to levels considered unsustainable in the long term.

Draghi last week said that the central bank would do whatever it takes to preserve the euro, stirring speculation it might take more radical steps when the ECB's policy-setting Governing Council holds its monthly meeting on Thursday.

Geithner said Schaeuble and Draghi had walked him through plans they were putting in place to try to solve the crisis, but he cautioned against expecting immediate action.

"What you know, from what Europe has said, that they are committed to doing what's necessary to hold the Europe Union together," said Geithner. "I absolutely believe they have the means to do it."

Geithner said past financial crisis showed that the longer it took to address the issues, the more they cost.

"I believe they understand that. That's why they've signaled they are prepared to move further. Now again, this is going to take time," he added.

Market expectations of a major ECB move this week have faded after a spike following Draghi's comments, with European shares slipping and a rally in Spanish and Italian bonds petering out.

Monti on Tour

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, touring Europe to press for action to bring down Rome's borrowing costs, made his pitch to euro zone hardliner Finland on Wednesday, saying Italy did not need an assistance program but it might in future need "a breathing break" from high interest rates.

"The basic idea is that Italy does not seem to need special aid right now, especially not to save its economy," Monti was quoted as saying by Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat on the day he was due to meet Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen.

He added that it was frustrating that reforms his government has carried out are not reflected in interest rates. The euro area financial crisis has sent the group's third largest economy's borrowing costs spiraling.

Central bank sources have told Reuters that intervention could be at least five weeks away because Draghi's comments had not been agreed in advance with the Governing Council, and other elements must first fall into place.

The sources said the ECB could revive its mothballed sovereign bond-buying program in conjunction with the euro zone's rescue funds, but Spain would first have to request assistance, which it has so far resisted.

Euro zone leaders would have to agree to the rescue funds buying up government bonds, and the German Constitutional Court would have to uphold the legality of the bloc's permanent rescue fund in a ruling due on September 12.

Unemployment in the euro zone has hit its highest level since the single currency was born, a further sign of economic gloom as markets pin their hopes on central bank action.

An additional 123,000 people were out of work in the euro zone in June, figures from Eurostat showed on Tuesday, bringing the jobless rate to a record high 11.2 percent across the 17 countries that use the single currency.

The rate hides wide divergences, with unemployment as low as 4.5 percent in Austria and as high as 24.8 percent in Spain, where a shrinking economy makes it ever more difficult to pay off debt.

New data showed capital fleeing Spanish banks at a growing rate. Spain has come dangerously close to losing affordable access to financial markets, raising the prospect of a bailout that would swamp the euro zone's hastily erected defenses. If Spain goes, Italy, with an economy twice the size, could follow.

Euro zone leaders have spent the past week issuing statements promising to take whatever steps are necessary to rescue the currency, but none has raised expectations as much as Draghi, who heads the only federal European institution able to act swiftly and decisively.

However, the ECB is divided with Germany's influential Bundesbank opposed to reviving government bonds or giving the euro zone rescue fund a banking license so it can borrow from the central bank to buy unlimited quantities of bonds.

Draghi met Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann privately earlier this week to try to reconcile differences on what action the bank might take. Neither bank would comment on the meeting.

With the economy slowing and inflation under control, other options on the ECB's radar screen include a possible further cut in interest rates and a further loosening of rules on the collateral it will accept to lend funds to banks.

[Source: By Paul Carrel and Terhi Kinnunen, Reuters, Frankfurt and Helsinky, 01Aug12]

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