Spanish People Take it to the Streets of Madrid

Citizens protesting against harsh austerity measures were met with violence from the police.

AFP | JULY 20, 2012

Spanish police fired rubber bullets and charged protestors in central Madrid early Friday at the end of a huge demonstration against economic crisis measures.

The protest was one of over 80 demonstrations called by unions across the county against civil servant pay cuts and tax hikes which drew tens of thousands of people, including police and firefighters wearing their helmets.

“Hands up, this is a robbery!” protesters bellowed as they marched through the streets of the Spanish capital.

At the end of the peaceful protest dozens of protestors lingered at the Puerta del Sol, a large square in the heart of Madrid where the demonstration wound up late on Thursday.

Some threw bottles at police and set up barriers made up of plastic bins and cardboard boxes in the middle of side streets leading to the square and set them on fire, sending plumes of thick smoke into the air.

Riot police then charged some of the protestors, striking them with batons when they tried to reach the heavily-guarded parliament building.

The approach of the riot police sent protestors running through the streets of the Spanish capital as tourists sitting on outdoor patios looked on.

A police official told AFP that officers arrested seven people while six people were injured.

The protests held Thursday were the latest and biggest in an almost daily series of demonstrations that erupted last week when Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced measures to save 65 billion euros ($80 billion) and slash the public deficit.

Among the steps is a cut to the Christmas bonus paid to civil servants, equivalent to a seven-percent reduction in annual pay. This came on top of a pay cut in 2010, which was followed by a salary freeze.

“There’s nothing we can do but take to the street. We have lost between 10 and 15 percent of our pay in the past four years,” said Sara Alvera, 51, a worker in the justice sector, demonstrating in Madrid.

“These measures won’t help end the crisis.”

Spain is struggling with its second recession in four years and an unemployment rate of more than 24 percent.

Under pressure from the European Union to stabilise Spain’s public finances, the conservative government also cut unemployment benefits and increased sales tax, with the upper limit rising from 18 to 21 percent.

As Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party passed the measures with its majority in parliament Thursday, Budget Minister Cristobal Montoro defended them, insisting they were needed to lower Spain’s borrowing costs.

“There is no money in the coffers to pay for public services. We are making reforms that will allow us to better finance ourselves,” he said.

Protestors angrily rejected this claim.

“There isn’t a shortage of money — there are too many thieves,” read one sign hoisted in the Madrid crowd.

Critics say the government’s new austerity measures will worsen economic conditions for ordinary people.

Cristina Blesa, a 55-year-old teacher, said she and her husband would struggle to pay their son’s university tuition fees because of the cuts and tax hikes.

“We’re earning less and less and at the same time the price of everything is going up,” she said at the Madrid protest.

“Now with the rise in VAT everything is going to be even more expensive. It’s more and more difficult at the end of the month.”

Spain is due this month to become the fourth eurozone country, after Greece, Ireland and Portugal, to get bailout funds in the current crisis, when it receives the first loan from a 100-billion-euro credit line for its banks.

Eurozone leaders were expected to finalise the deal in a telephone conference on Friday.

Spain had to offer investors sharply higher interest rates in a bond sale on Thursday, suggesting investors remain worried over the country’s ability to repay its debts.

Protestors complained that they were being made to pay for the financial crisis while banks and the rich were let off.

“We have to all come out into the street, firefighters, street-sweepers, nurses, to say: enough,” said Manuel Amaro, a 38-year-old fireman in Madrid holding his black helmet by his side.

“If we don’t, I don’t know where this is going to end.”

Anti-Austerity Protests Grow in Europe

By PATRICK DONAHUE | BLOOMBERG | APRIL 30, 2012

A recession in Spain and forecasts of rising unemployment in the 17-nation euro area are amplifying criticism of the German-led austerity agenda in election campaigns this week in France and Greece.

With Spain’s largest unions leading marches involving thousands of protesters in 55 cities yesterday, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government battled to prevent Spain from becoming the next country to seek a bailout. In France, where the presidential-election runoff is set for May 6, Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande pushed back against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s focus on deficit reduction.

“Watching Spain now is exactly like watching Ireland around October 2010 before Ireland was forced into its bailout,” Megan Greene, a senior economist at Roubini Global Economics LLC, told Bloomberg Television’s “Street Smart” on April 27. “The government can’t win no matter what it does.”

Spain’s economy shrank in the first quarter as the nation officially entered its second recession since 2009. Gross domestic product contracted 0.3 percent. Joblessness in the euro area probably to rose to 10.9 percent last month, the highest since 1997, according to economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

As Spanish joblessness reached almost one in four of the working-age population, Hollande demanded that euro-area leaders move to promoting growth from cutting budgets, as agreed by 25 European governments in the so-called fiscal pact. Merkel drew the line at re-opening talks on the fiscal treaty, though she said growth could be boosted with labor-market reform and European Union funding.

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Europe to Save its Banks, not Greece

by Floyd Norris
NYTimes
February 10, 2012

It now appears that Europe is prepared to pay what it needs to pay to save its banks.

But not to rescue Greece.

Once again, there is optimism that a new round of European talks are going to result in an announcement of a Greek bailout. On Thursday, the Greek political parties caved in and agreed to a new austerity package that will satisfy the latest European demands.

When other loose ends are tied up, it appears the Greeks will have given up their principal bargaining chip — the threat that if they are allowed to collapse, they will take the European financial system with them.

If that happens, then at some point down the road, when it turns out that Greece has again fallen short of its deficit reduction targets, Germany will again demand more sacrifices. If the Greeks refuse, then the rest of Europe could be in a position to let Greece go.

It might or might not stay in the euro zone, but a bankrupt Greece would be left to fend for itself, with much of the rest of Europe saying — just as it did two years ago, when Greece’s distress was just becoming clear — that it is a small country of little importance to the rest of Europe.

Perhaps Europe, in its stumbling and sometimes disorganized fashion, will have accomplished a large part of what it set out to do. It will have put a fence around the Greek tragedy and preserved — most of, if not all — the euro zone. As for rescuing Greece, well, you can’t win them all.

The current European attitude was best captured by a document that was circulated as part of the now-abandoned German proposal to force Greece to accept a “budget commissar” to supervise its spending.

“Greece has to legally commit itself to giving absolute priority to future debt service,” said the document, said to have been circulated by German officials. “State revenues are to be used first and foremost for debt service.” Whatever money was left over could be used for other purposes, such as paying police salaries or purchasing hospital supplies.

That was shot down because it sounded so undemocratic and authoritarian, said Whitney Debevoise, a partner in Arnold & Porter with long experience in international bond negotiations. “Plan B is the escrow.”

Escrow does sound like something neutral. But it apparently means the same thing. European aid to Greece would go into an escrow account, to be released as Europe saw fit and withheld if Greece again failed to live up to its promises to cut its budget deficit. But of course the money would be released for debt payments on the restructured bonds. For at least a few years, banks and others that own the new Greek bonds would be assured of collecting their interest payments.

“The euro area will be able to call the bluff of the Greek government,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“Greece says, ‘If we default, all hell breaks loose,’ ” he said. “The reality is that the threat from Greek contagion becomes a lot less credible.”

The escrow system may also persuade more bondholders to go along with the “voluntary” restructuring. Anyone who did not, hoping that the handful of unexchanged bonds would be paid since the cost would not be that great, would run the risk that Europe would release funds to pay debt service on the new bonds, but not on unexchanged old ones.

There have been Greek rescue packages before, followed by new crises. But this could be different.

By the time it becomes clear that Greece cannot meet its new promises, the recapitalization of major European banks may be completed, and in any case they will have no immediate worry of a Greek default. The European Stability Mechanism, the new European bailout fund, will be in place, and perhaps the International Monetary Fund will have raised more capital. The much-talked-about “firewall” could be a reality, preventing contagion.

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Panic Alarms hit Italian Economy

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has called an emergency meeting of top officials dealing with the euro zone debt crisis.

Reuters
July 10, 2011

European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet will attend the meeting along with Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the region’s finance ministers, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Olli Rehn, the economic and monetary affairs commissioner, three official sources told Reuters.

Van Rompuy’s spokesman Dirk De Backer said: “It’s a coordination, not a crisis meeting.” He added that Italy would not be on the agenda and declined to say what would be discussed.

However, two official sources told Reuters that the situation in Italy would be discussed. The talks were organized after a sharp sell-off in Italian assets on Friday, which has increased fears that Italy, with the highest sovereign debt ratio relative to its economy in the euro zone after Greece, could be next to suffer in the crisis. A second international bailout of Greece will also be discussed, the sources said.

The spread of the Italian 10-year government bond yield over benchmark German Bunds hit euro lifetime highs around 2.45 percentage points on Friday, raising the Italian yield to 5.28 percent, close to the 5.5-5.7 percent area which some bankers think could start putting heavy pressure on Italy’s finances.

Shares in Italy’s biggest bank, Unicredit Spa, fell 7.9 percent on Friday, partly because of worries about the results of stress tests of the health of European banks that will be released on July 15. The leading Italian stock index sank 3.5 percent.

The market pressure is due partly to Italy’s high sovereign debt and sluggish economy, but also to concern that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may be trying to undermine and even push out Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, who has promoted deep spending cuts to control the budget deficit.

“We can’t go on for many more days like Friday,” a senior ECB official said. “We’re very worried about Italy.”

Monday’s emergency meeting will precede a previously scheduled gathering of the euro zone’s 17 finance ministers to discuss how to secure a contribution of private sector investors to the second bailout of Greece, as well as the results of the stress tests of 91 European banks.

GREECE

Greece is already receiving 110 billion euros ($157 billion) of international loans under a rescue scheme launched in May last year but this has failed to change market expectations that it will eventually default on its debt.

Senior euro zone officials worry that progress toward a second Greek bailout, which would also total around 110 billion euros and aim to fund the country into late 2014, is not being made quickly enough and that the delay is poisoning investors’ confidence in weak economies around the region.

“We need to move on this in the next couple of weeks. It’s not a case of waiting until late August or early September as Germany is saying. That’s too late and markets will make us pay for it,” a top euro zone official told Reuters on Saturday.

German officials insist they too want to put together the second Greek bailout as quickly as possible, but the private sector’s contribution is proving to be a major sticking point.

Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland are determined that banks, insurers and other private holders of Greek government bonds should bear some of the costs of helping Athens. But more than two weeks of negotiations with bankers represented by the Institute of International Finance (IIF), a lobby group, have made next to no progress on agreeing a formula acceptable to all sides.

Initially talks focused on a complex French plan for private creditors to roll over up to 30 billion euros of Greek debt, buying new bonds as their existing ones matured. Around half of proceeds from Greek bonds maturing before the end of 2014 would be rolled over into very long-term debt while 20 percent would be put into a “guarantee fund” of AAA-rated securities.

But as that plan has floundered, Berlin has revived a proposal to swap Greek bonds for longer-dated debt that would extend maturities by seven years. Proposals to buy back Greek bonds and retire them have also been floated.

In a buy-back, the euro zone’s bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, might buy Greek bonds from the market, or the EFSF might lend Greece money to buy bonds. However, these schemes would require further changes to the EFSF’s rules and would therefore have to go through national parliaments, an official source said.

SQUARE ONE

A senior euro zone official told Reuters on Friday that rather than progress being made in the talks with the IIF, as IIF managing director Charles Dallara has said, all sides were close to being “back to square one.”

Dallara will attend the meeting of euro zone finance ministers in Brussels on Monday.

Since the euro zone’s debt crisis erupted last year, the region’s rich governments have aimed to limit it to Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which have so far signed up to bailouts totaling 273 billion euros — a sum that is small compared to the financial resources of the zone as a whole.

Spain, traditionally seen as the next potential domino in the crisis, has managed to retain its access to market funding through fiscal reforms. But because of the large sizes of the Spanish and Italian economies, pressure on the euro zone would increase dramatically if those countries eventually needed financial assistance.

Private analysts have estimated a three-year bailout of Spain, based on its projected gross issuance of medium- and long-term debt in 2011, might cost some 300 billion euros — excluding any additional money for cleaning up Spain’s banks. A three-year rescue of Italy could cost twice that.

German newspaper Die Welt quoted an unnamed ECB source as saying on Sunday that the EFSF, which has a nominal size of 440 billion euros, was not large enough to protect Italy because it had not been designed to do that.

In Italy on Sunday, politicians and government officials scrambled to present a united front and defend Tremonti. Umberto Bossi, the powerful leader of Berlusconi’s Northern League coalition allies, praised Tremonti for “listening to the markets.”

“From tomorrow, we have the job of showing we are united and blocking the effort of speculators,” said Paolo Bonaiuti, a government undersecretary and senior aide to Berlusconi.

“In the coming months we have 120-130 billion euros of bond issues to deal with, so we need cohesion and united intent; it’ll take effort to show that the markets are overdoing it.”

However, Berlusconi himself was silent over the weekend and canceled two appointments to speak, and it was not clear how long the appearance of consensus in the government over austerity plans would last.

One factor behind bond markets’ growing instability is a sense that the euro zone’s basic strategy for dealing with debt problems — keeping countries afloat with emergency loans in the hope they can grow their way out of their debts within a few years — is flawed. More radical action to cut the countries’ debts or boost economic growth may be needed.

In Germany on Sunday, President Christian Wulff said Greece would need a lot longer to resolve its debt problems than many people in Europe were now acknowledging.

Wulff, a former leader in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and now Germany’s ceremonial head of state, told ZDF television there was a need for “an overall concept” for resolving Europe’s debt crisis.

“It can’t be something that will suffice for a three-month period but rather has to offer solutions to the problem that will cover the next 10 to 15 years,” Wulff said.

China getting set to absorb Europe

China Will Back Europe, Euro With Currency Reserves

Bloomberg

Europe and the euro will remain among the most important areas of investment for China’s world-record $2.65 trillion of foreign-exchange reserves, a central bank official said in the nation’s latest show of support.

“The euro and the European financial markets are an important part of the global financial system and were, are and will be one of the most important investment areas for China’s foreign-exchange reserves,” Deputy Governor Yi Gang said in a statement on the central bank’s website.

China’s statements of support have included Vice Premier Li Keqiang this week expressing confidence in Spain’s financial markets and pledging more purchases of that nation’s debt. In backing European economies, China may help to prop up demand in the region that is its biggest market for exports and also the value of its euro-denominated assets.

“In the short term, the market will take this as supportive to the euro,” said Mark Williams, a London-based economist at Capital Economics Ltd. “The problems of the euro zone are structurally deep-rooted and not something that China will be able to solve.”

The euro was today headed for a weekly loss versus 15 of its 16 major counterparts amid concern that European governments will struggle to raise funds as the region’s fiscal crisis lingers. The euro depreciated for a fifth day to $1.2983 as of 7:55 a.m. in London, after earlier falling to $1.2968, the weakest since Sept. 15.

‘Safeguard’ Stability

Yi is head of China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which oversees the currency reserves, and was commenting on the vice premier’s visit to Europe.

“Based on the principle of diversification, investing foreign-exchange reserves into euro zone government debt will not only help safeguard Europe’s financial stability as well as the global market, but will also yield reasonable investment returns, thus help ensure overall security and increase of returns on China’s foreign-exchange reserves,” Yi said.

Li’s opinion pieces in European newspapers this week also expressed China’s support.

“China supports the EU as it helps countries overcome their debt crises and contributes to broad economic recovery and stable growth by means of financial stability measures,” he wrote in German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Borrowing costs for Portugal surged at a six-month bill sale this week, the first of Europe’s high-deficit nations to test investor demand in 2011 after the threat of default forced Greece and Ireland to seek bailouts last year. Spain and Italy together need to raise 317 billion euros this year, according to BNP Paribas SA.