Washington (UPI) Jan 10, 2011 This week will be the first test of the year for the survival of the euro, as Portugal, Spain and Italy all have bond auctions. The countries are likely to raise the money they need. The first question is how much they will have to pay in interest to compensate investors for the risk.
The second question is who will take that risk? If the markets go on strike, as they did over Greece and Ireland last year, will the European Central Bank have to come up with the money? And the third question is whether Germany will allow the central bank to do so.
Market reaction has been verging on the surreal. It now costs more to insure the public debt of 15 Western European countries -- including Germany, Greece and Portugal -- than the debt of emergent markets like Romania, Turkey and Ukraine, according to the Markit iTraxx Index of credit default swaps.
These are strange times. The current mood of the markets over Europe is so gloomy that it now costs more to insure the debt of France than that of Thailand. Five-year credit default swaps on French sovereign debt were trading Friday at 110 basis points, the same level as Mexico.
On Friday, Portugal's 10-year bond yields hit 7.14 percent, just above the level that Lisbon officials have said aren't sustainable. Traders in the market said the yield would have risen further but the European Central Bank was buying Portuguese bonds to prevent a sell-off.
A credit default swap index isn't infallible but it says a lot about the current thinking in the markets. This isn't necessarily rational but markets are as much about confidence as they are about fundamentals.
The ratings agencies still rate French sovereign debt as Triple A even though the CDS index suggests that the markets are reckoning French debt as Baa2, not far above junk status. France is a wealthy and technologically advanced country with some world-beating companies and for markets to rate is so low suggests a mood close to panic.
This matters because of the bond auctions coming this week. If Portugal, Spain and Italy are unable to sell their bonds, or can only sell them at punitive prices, they will start dropping into the same dire position as Greece and Ireland, which last year found the markets virtually closed against them. They had to turn to their eurozone partners to raise the money needed to finance their deficits.
Led by Germany, the other eurozone countries have been able to mobilize a fund that could bail out Greece and Ireland and probably Portugal. But bailing out Spain would be a stretch and a problem with Italy would need a whole new bailout fund.
And now investors are getting nervous about Belgium, whose bond yields rose Friday to 2.5 percent more than German levels after yet another failure by the fractious political parties to form a government. Belgian debt is being traded at the same level as Italy's.
The way the crisis has moved from Greece last spring to Ireland in the fall and now to a new range of countries suggests a slow-motion train crash. The markets know that eurozone countries have to borrow more than a trillion euros this year. But who, other than the ECB, will be prepared to lend the money and at what price?
And the problem isn't going to be solved even by another eurozone rescue fund or another mass purchase of debt by the ECB. Look at Ireland, which secured a $100 billion rescue in November. But as of Friday the cost of insuring its debt on credit default swap rose to 640 basis points, almost half as high again as the 448 basis points it was paying in October.
It means that it costs an annual $640,000 a year to insure $10 million of Irish debt for five years. Paying $3.2 million to insure $10 million of debt is lunacy.
The markets are signaling that they simply don't believe the euro can hold together in its present form. Some kind of restructuring will have to come, not just for Greece and Ireland but also for the countries now in the firing line like Portugal, Spain and perhaps even Italy.
What form that restructuring will take is an open question. So far, we have had a partial restructuring, with Greece and Ireland being put on a drip-feed of public money from the ECB and the more solvent eurozone members, backed by the International Monetary Fund.
But there is neither the money nor the political will to continue that kind of measure for other countries. And Greek and Irish voters are paying dearly in shrunken economies and unemployment and declining living standards.
Despite the market pressure, the eurozone countries seem unable to come up with a convincing solution. That is why the slow-motion train wreck will continue, staring with this week's auctions. It's not a pretty sight.