* Spain borrowing costs highest since 1997 at auction
* French also pay more to sell bonds
* Merkel refuses to budge on ECB role
* Monti to outline Italy austerity measures
By Nigel Davies and Alexandria Sage
MADRID/PARIS, Nov 17 Greek police clashed
with anti-austerity protesters and Italy announced sweeping
reforms in response to a European debt crisis that on Thursday
pushed borrowing costs for France and Spain sharply higher.
More than 30,000 Greeks took to the streets of Athens in a
protest rally that marked the first public test for a new
national unity government that must impose painful spending cuts
and tax rises if the country is to escape bankruptcy.
Greek police fired tear gas against black-clad youths as
protest marchers beat drums, waved red flags and shouted: "EU,
Italy's new Prime Minister Mario Monti unveiled sweeping
reforms to dig the country out of crisis and said Italians were
confronting a "serious emergency". Opinion polls show Monti
enjoys 75 percent support but there were street clashes in the
business capital of Milan and in Turin.
"Only if we can avoid being seen as the weak link of Europe
can we contribute to European reforms," said Monti, who was
sworn in on Wednesday as head of a technocrat government after a
rushed transition from discredited ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi.
The Spanish government was forced to pay the highest
borrowing costs since 1997 at a sale of 10-year bonds, with
yields a steep 1.5 points above the average paid at similar
tenders this year, drawing descriptions from the market ranging
from "pretty awful" to "dreadful".
The euro fell in response. Paris fared a little better, but
again had to pay markedly more to shift nearly 7 billion euros
of government paper. Fears that the euro zone's second largest
economy is getting sucked into the debt maelstrom have taken the
two-year crisis to a new level this week.
"The euro zone has got to deliver something which is going
to calm markets down and at the moment markets feel like they
are being given no comfort whatsoever," said Marc Ostwald,
strategist at Monument Securities.
In Rome, Monti outlined a broad raft of policies including
pension and labour market reform, a crackdown on tax evasion and
changes to the tax system in his maiden speech to parliament
ahead a confidence vote to confirm backing for his technocrat
He later spoke to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and
German Chancelleor Angela Merkel and all three agreed on the
need to accelerate reform measures, the three leaders said in a
With Italy's borrowing costs now at untenable levels, Monti
will have to work fast to calm financial markets given Italy
needs to refinance some 200 billion euros ($273 billion) of
bonds by the end of April.
Ireland, which has been bailed out and gained plaudits for
its austerity drive, will also be forced to do more. Dublin will
increase its top rate of sales tax by two percent in next
month's budget, documents obtained by Reuters showed.
But no amount of austerity in Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland
and France is likely to convince the markets without some
dramatic action in the shorter term, probably involving the
European Central Bank.
Many analysts believe the only way to stem the contagion for
now is for the ECB to buy up large quantities of bonds,
effectively the sort of 'quantitative easing' undertaken by the
U.S. and British central banks.
France and Germany have stepped up their war of words over
whether the ECB should intervene more forcefully to halt the
euro zone's debt crisis after modest bond purchases have failed
to calm markets.
Facing rising borrowing costs as its 'AAA' credit rating
comes under threat, France has urged stronger ECB action but
Berlin continues to resist, saying European Union rules prohibit
"If politicians think the ECB can solve the euro crisis,
then they are mistaken," Merkel said. Even if the ECB assumes a
role as lender of last resort, it would not solve the crisis,
Investors and euro zone officials hope that if Merkel and
others find themselves staring into the abyss, the unthinkable
will rapidly become thinkable.
"The Germans have made some remarkable changes to their
position over the past few months, you have to give them credit
for that, it just takes rather a long time. It's Chinese
torture," one euro zone central banker told Reuters. "They are
not drawing lines in the sand as clearly as they were."
BANKS UNDER THE COSH
With turmoil reaching a crescendo, euro zone banks are
finding it harder to obtain funding. While the stresses are not
yet at the levels during the 2008 financial crisis, they have
continued to mount despite ECB moves to provide unlimited
liquidity to banks.
Fitch Ratings warned it might lower its "stable" rating
outlook for U.S. banks because of contagion from problems in
troubled European markets.
Fellow ratings agency Moody's cut ratings of 12 German
public-sector banks, believing they are likely to receive less
federal government support if needed.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said on Thursday
that the euro zone's debt crisis was beginning to hit the real
economy and urged vigilance to prevent contagion from infecting
banks and insurance firms.
European officials are in the meantime looking at leveraging
the euro zone bailout fund, the 440 billion euro European
Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), which can offer bailouts to
euro zone sovereigns in trouble.
A senior euro zone official with knowledge of market
consultations said a majority of investors would be ready to
invest in euro zone debt on the back of the soon-to-be leveraged
fund, but needed an improvement in market confidence to commit