Europe is in a panic. Concerns over the future of its main currency, the Euro, have been battering the continent’s markets since Monday.
European Union finance ministers are trying to keep the Greek debt crisis from spreading from Greece to other heavily indebted members. But the obstacles only seem to mount, as confidence in the currency weakens.
To get a sense of how desperate European leaders are to contain the sovereign debt crisis, consider what happened at a recent meeting of finance ministers. In the middle of the crisis session, Italy’s finance minister Guilio Tremonti ducked out. As he made for the door, Tremonti told reporters he had to get back to Rome to help save his economy.
Italy is the latest Euro-zone country to come under pressure from financial markets, as concerns about its huge deficit pushed interest rates on its bonds to record highs. Italy is Europe’s third largest economy. Any hint of serious trouble there would spell real trouble for the Euro.
While ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s have threatened to downgrade Italy’s debt, they’ve already reduced Portuguese and Irish debt to junk status.
Like Greece, Portugal and Ireland have already turned to Brussels for a bailout. Now their odds of recovering are tougher.
Why this latest panic? Investors point to European dithering over how to save Greece. Europe’s latest proposals to keep Greece solvent: having private investors to take voluntary losses on Greek bond. In theory, that would give Athens some breathing room. But the ratings agencies say that would trigger a default.
So Europe seems to be at a loss as to what to do.
“Proposals for spreading the contagion around Europe are urgently needed,” said European Union President Von Rompoy in a vague call for help.
There are a couple of ideas out there now. One is to create a Euro-bond, guaranteed by member states and the European Central Bank.
Anabel Cavaco Silva, a Portuguese economist, likes the idea. She told Euronews that these bonds would also guarantee low interest rates to countries, so that they can invest and grow.
“This is a fundamental condition for survival in the Euro zone,” she said. “Today, in the face of financial markets which apply a great deal of pressure, the only way to apply rates so that all countries can invest, is through Euro-bonds.”
Another more radical idea is for Europe to create its own ratings agency, with its own presumably more favorable criteria. Then the continent could simply ignore the Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s of the world. The problem, many economists say, is that investors wouldn’t follow suit. And they’re the ones with the money.
In the meantime, some French legislators are floating yet another idea to avoid future debt crises. They’re proposing writing a balanced budget provision into the French constitution.