March 3, 2021

European Debt Concerns Rear Up Again

LONDON — Concerns about the euro zone’s ability to cohesively respond to its debt crisis resurfaced Friday after talks between Greece and its foreign creditors were interrupted and the head of the European Central Bank warned Italy to stick to its austerity program.

Yields on 10-year Italian bonds rose almost a tenth of a percentage point, to 5.21 percent — well above the 5 percent level that policy makers consider the top desirable rate. The yield on Spain’s 10-year securities climbed slightly to 5.06 percent, despite passage in the lower house of the Spanish Parliament on Friday of an amendment that will enshrine stricter budgetary discipline in the Constitution.

Europe’s central bank began the extraordinary step of buying Italian and Spanish debt on Aug. 8 to help calm markets after 10-year rates spiked to around the 6 percent level.

David Schnautz, interest rate strategist at Commerzbank in London, said many investors had chosen to use the central bank’s recent bond-buying program to offload those bonds, and that was causing yields to drift up now.

“There’s still no genuine investor demand for Spanish and Italian government bonds,” he said.

In the debt talks in Athens, European and International Monetary Fund officials withdrew early as they apparently disagreed over the country’s deficit figures and how to make up for a growing budget shortfall.

The mission had been sent to determine whether Greece would meet the conditions for the next tranche of emergency loans, expected this month.

Representatives of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the I.M.F. said in a statement that “good progress” had been made, but that they wanted to allow time for the Greek government to complete technical work on the 2012 budget and reforms.

The delegates, who had been scheduled to leave next week, said they would return to Athens by mid-September, “when we expect the Greek authorities to have completed the technical work, to continue discussions on policies needed to complete the review.”

An initial loan package, agreed to last year, has since been supplemented by a second bailout deal that was reached in Brussels in July, but now hangs in the balance amid demands by some euro zone countries for guarantees from Greece in the form of collateral. Without that fresh aid, Greece could default on its obligations.

The Greek finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, denied that there was a rift with the auditors over the country’s ability to meet deficit reduction targets set by the foreign creditors.

The minister told reporters at a news conference that talks were continuing with auditors in “a very friendly and constructive climate,” and that he expected the team back on Sept. 14 for a second phase once the Greek government had finished a draft of the national budget for 2012.

Greek officials had not previously suggested that there would be a break in negotiations with the inspectors, whose earlier audits had lasted two weeks.

One issue that dominated talks, which concluded early Friday, was a deeper-than-expected recession in Greece that would necessitate “some additional elaboration to ensure there is no divergence” from deficit reduction targets, Mr. Venizelos said.

A European official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential, said that without additional information, there was a risk that some euro zone countries might not agree to releasing the round of aid.

Mr. Venizelos also said that Greece’s economy was expected to contract by “up to 5 percent” but would not give a figure for the Greek budget deficit, broadly expected to overshoot a deficit target of 7.6 percent for 2011 by up to one percentage point.

Analysts said the government’s procrastination in adopting tough measures — like a crackdown on tax evasion and an ambitious privatization scheme — could cost the country dearly.

Moses Sidiropoulos, economics professor at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, told the private television channel Skai that Greece’s future in the euro zone was at stake.

“If immediate action isn’t taken, even one thing, an example to the foreign creditors that we are serious, I fear Greece will soon be featured in textbooks as a paradox of economic management,” he said.

Greek two-year note yields climbed Friday as much as 358 basis points to reach a euro-era record 46.51 percent, according to Bloomberg News.

Matthew Saltmarsh reported from London and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens. Raphael Minder contributed reporting from Madrid.

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