The International Monetary Fund has warned that the immense firepower of the European Central Bank (ECB) would be needed to “scare” the financial markets and prevent an intensification of the turmoil threatening to send the global economy back into recession.
With investors poised to give their verdict on the weekend talks in Washington of finance ministers and central bank governors, European policymakers insisted that fresh moves to boost the fighting fund to support struggling eurozone members were in the offing.
Brussels has a deadline of the Cannes G20 summit in early November to flesh out its proposals but is waiting for a key vote in the German parliament this week on the expansion of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) before deciding how best to turn the €440bn (£380bn) pot of capital into a €2tn war chest.
“We need to find a mechanism where we can turn one euro in the EFSF into five, but there is no decision on how we could do that yet,” one senior European official said. Some European countries, including Germany, are sceptical about using the ECB to provide the leverage but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) insisted there was no alternative.
Antonio Borges, head of the IMF’s European division, said: “It is very important that we see a combination of the ECB and the EFSF. Anyone who thinks that the EFSF will be a miraculous solution to the problem is making a very big mistake.
“The ECB is the only agent which can really scare the markets.”
Privately, many officials at the IMF and in its 187 member governments accept the inevitability of a Greek default and now see the priority as preventing the two much bigger economies of Italy and Spain being dragged down.
Greece’s finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, said Greece would not default before talks with the IMF about the next €8bn instalment of its rescue package due next month. Sources in Washington said Greece would get the money in the hope that Europe would buy itself enough time to piece together a convincing anti-contagion strategy. The likeliest time of a Greek default is thought to be in late 2011 or early 2012.
On Sunday night, German chancellor Angela Merkel said she would not rule out letting a eurozone country default on its debts once the currency union has its permanent rescue fund, the European stability mechanism (ESM), in place.
In an hour-long interview with ARD television, Merkel underlined the importance of an expanded mechanism to prevent future crises spilling over into other nations. She said that once the ESM is in place, “I don’t exclude that we at some point … that one could do the insolvency of a state just as of banks.” The ESM is currently slated to start in 2013.
The chancellor also said a permanent structure would allow other European partners to set up a “barrier” around Greece to prevent a domino effect on other nations.
Prices of shares and commodities plunged last week as dealers took fright at Europe’s intensifying debt crisis and signs of a marked slowdown in the world economy. The managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, said the world was in a “very dangerous place” while the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, said there was a risk of the contagion spreading to emerging economies, which have been performing more strongly than the rich western nations. “The numbers emerging out of developing countries over the past month are shaking and shaky,” Zoellick said.
European policymakers in Washington responded to pressure from the US, Britain and emerging country members of the G20 group. Brazil’s finance minister, Alexandre Tombini, said his country’s experience showed the need to act with “overwhelming force”, while Tim Geithner, the US treasury secretary, said: “Decisions as to how to conclusively address the region’s problems cannot wait until the crisis gets more severe.”
Justine Greening, economic secretary to the Treasury, said Britain had been urging Europe to get to grips with the crisis for several weeks. “I think we’ve had some positive steps taken this weekend towards the eurozone being able to do that in terms of both recapitalising the banks in Europe that are under stress but also [by] putting in place a bailout fund that is big enough to give confidence to the markets,” she said.
Olli Rehn, Europe’s commissioner for economic and financial affairs, said the eurozone needed to do more. “We need to build a bridge and I think this bridge will be developed on the basis of the current reform of the EFSF and as one part of that next stage we are contemplating the possibility of leveraging the EFSF resources to have more firepower and thus have a stronger financial firewall to support our member states doing the right thing.”
One option to increase the potency of the EFSF currently under discussion would be for the ECB to commit large amounts of funding, with the capital in the EFSF used to cover potential losses.
German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said he was open to the idea of leveraging Europe’s rescue fund but said that did not necessarily mean the ECB should provide the extra firepower.
Mohamed el-Erian, co-chief investment officer of the giant bond fund Pimco, said: “It is encouraging that … European officials are signalling a better appreciation of the depth and potential consequences of the crisis.
“Now they need to translate this into decisive actions underpinned by a common vision of what they want the eurozone to look like in five years’ time.”
Almost from the moment the €440m EFSF was created it was deemed too small. Hence all the talk now about how to enlarge the bailout fund to convince the markets that Europe has the firepower to contain the crisis. But the problem is that the countries that need to contribute to the EFSF either cannot afford to put in more cash or lack the political support. So ideas are now being conjured up to make it bigger without putting up more money – to turn one euro into five, as one EU source put it. Analysts at Credit Suisse say one idea would be to turn the EFSF into a bank to enable it to use bonds it has bought from troubled countries in exchange for fresh funds at the ECB. Credit Suisse acknowledges this might look like a “story of a leveraged hedge fund” and would mean that countries such as France contributing to the EFSF might find their AAA rating under threat. They think a better idea would be to enlarge the EFSF and lend a third of the funds to governments to buy bonds, a third to recapitalise the banks and the rest to create an EFSF bank.