The world’s top central banks have sprung into action to help cash-strapped banks, while the EU acknowledged it has 10 days in which to fix a crisis threatening a global financial meltdown.
The central banks of the eurozone, the United States, Japan, Switzerland, Canada and Britain collectively announced a giant shot in the arm with “liquidity support to the global financial system”.
Stocks and the euro each surged on the move intended to restore some confidence on markets wearied by the failure of leaders to act decisively to a crisis that French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned risks destroying Europe and a return to conflicts on the continent.
Many banks are being squeezed by the weight of downgraded government debt bonds in their books and have been finding it difficult to borrow from one another. This has raised pressure to reduce lending to businesses that would choke off economic growth.
The central banks said they would make funds available to banks at lower interest rates until February 2013 in order to “mitigate the effects of such strains on the supply of credit to households and businesses”.
The moves echo similar action in May 2010, when the EU first acknowledged that the Greek drama had become a wider euro crisis causing deep concern among international partners from the United States to Japan.
DEBT CRISIS FESTERS
The massive worldwide injection of hard cash came after the EU’s euro crisis commissioner Olli Rehn set the deadline of the end of next week’s summit for the bloc to fix the festering debt crisis.
The European Union faces “a critical period of 10 days to complete and conclude the crisis response”, Rehn said amid a resurgence of government calls for the ECB and the International Monetary Fund to save the day, in relation to the an upcoming summit.
The crisis of market confidence comes hand in hand with a wave of strikes and protests given added weight when data released on Wednesday showed unemployment hitting a record 10.3 per cent throughout the eurozone.
France’s foreign minister Alain Juppe warned of worse to come if solutions are not found quickly.
EUROPE’S EXISTENTIAL CRISIS
Echoing recent warnings from Poland of conflict again blighting the continent, Juppe said Europe was now locked in “an existential crisis”, telling news weekly L’Express that a collapse of euro monetary union would trigger “the explosion of the European Union itself”.
He added: “In that eventuality, everything becomes possible, even the worst. We have flattered ourselves for decades that we have eradicated the danger of conflict inside our continent, but let’s not be too sure.”
Economist Sony Kapoor of the Re-Define consultancy said the central bankers were providing “a useful cushion against Lehmann-like panic in the financial markets”, but that the euro crisis was still casting a “dark shadow” over the world economy.
The central bank move provides a brief respite for banks, but does not resolve the core issues of the sovereign debt crisis needed to halt the flight of investors.
Italy’s new Prime Minister Mario Monti, who is also acting as finance minister, said an approach to the IMF for bailout loans was “never envisaged”, but a top AFP source nevertheless said the IMF would now be “ready” to bail out Italy if the ECB joined the effort.
Italy, with a debt mountain of nearly two trillion euros, has faced intense pressure on bond markets.
And in a bid to avoid a “self-fulfilling run” on the country, Rome is under orders to fill a missing “buffer” zone to shield its public finances from recession, which Monti will do on Monday.
Until there satisfaction that Italy has done all it can with spending cuts, tax rises and radical reforms, the ECB is unlikely to step up purchases of Italian government bonds under its current limited program, let alone take more dramatic action.
The ECB has been reluctant to act as a lender of last resort for eurozone governments by directly buying their bonds as does the US Federal Reserve or the Bank of England, concerned that governments would lose their incentive to cut spending and there would be a surge of inflation.
The problem with counting on the IMF is that it has access to sums scarcely more than the eurozone’s 440 billion euro EFSF bailout fund.
Having the ECB, which can simply create cash, lend to the IMF has been mooted as this would alleviate its funding problems and the strict conditionality it attaches to lending would ensure Italy implements reforms.
“There is a consensus that the IMF should be actively involved, undoubtedly,” said a source close to the Washington-based lender of last resort.