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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

More bail-outs loom amid debt fears

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Portuguese PM Jose Socrates makes an statement after the final approval of his government's 2011 state budget (AP)

Europe is facing more seemingly inevitable bail-outs as it battled to keep the debt crisis from engulfing country after country.

Portugal passed austerity measures to fend off the speculative trades pushing it toward a rescue and Ireland rushed to negotiate its own imminent bail-out.

As Portugal and Spain insisted that they would not seek outside help, creating an eerie sense of deja-vu for investors, Europe looked set to face inevitable – and more expensive – bail-outs.

The Portuguese parliament approved an unpopular debt-reducing package, including tax increases and cuts in pay and welfare benefits. But while that helped to avoid a sharper deterioration in bond markets, the sense among analysts was that the move had bought only a little time.

Adding to the pressure, Ireland’s major banks were hit with credit downgrades – one to junk bond status – as speculation mounted that the EU-International Monetary Fund bail-out of Ireland, to be revealed within days, would require investors to take losses, a possibility earlier denied by officials.

Yields in fiscally weak eurozone countries remained near record highs on Friday, stocks slumped across the board and the 16-nation euro lost another 0.8% on the day to trade at 1.3241 dollars, just off two-month lows.

Portugal’s high debt and low growth have alarmed investors, but the government insists it does not require an international rescue – a line ominously reminiscent of claims by Greece and Ireland before their massive capitulation. Analysts say markets need more reassurance from EU leaders that the rot can be stopped in Portugal before spreading to Spain, the continent’s fourth-largest economy – a scenario that would threaten the euro currency itself.

The financial crisis took a step in that direction this week, as it increasingly becomes apparent that bond investors will not be pacified by austerity measures but want weak countries’ public finances to be plugged once and for all. Greece, which accepted a bail-out six months ago, and Ireland are still far from being able to return to international debt markets.

The European Commission, the European Central Bank and the German government denied they were pressuring Portugal to take financial aid.

Portuguese prime minister Jose Socrates said after parliament approved the 2011 spending plan that the country had “no alternative at all” to the belt-tightening. “We must make this effort,” he said.

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