Sat, Dec 03, 2011 - Page 10 News List

ECB opens door to action; Sarkozy seeks new treaty

CRISIS:With the ECB barred from being a lender of last resort, EU leaders are mulling allowing banks to lend to the IMF, so that it could help Italy and Spain

Reuters, BRUSSELS and TOULON, FRANCE

The new head of the European Central Bank (ECB) signaled on Thursday it stood ready to act more aggressively to fight Europe’s debt crisis if political leaders agree next week on much tighter budget controls in the 17-nation eurozone.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for a new treaty incorporating tougher budget discipline, a European monetary fund to support countries in difficulty and decisions in the eurozone taken by majority vote instead of unanimity.

Addressing supporters in the port city of Toulon, France, Sarkozy said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel would meet on Monday to outline joint proposals to put to an EU summit on Friday, seen as make-or-break for the 12-year-old single currency.

“Let us not hide it, Europe may be swept away by the crisis if it doesn’t get a grip, if it doesn’t change,” Sarkozy said, warning that a collapse of the euro would make France’s debt unmanageable and wipe out people’s savings. “We don’t have the right to let such a disaster happen.”

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi painted a dark picture of the state of Europe’s banking system, speaking a day after the world’s major central banks took emergency joint action to provide cheaper US dollar funding for starved European banks.

“A new fiscal compact would be the most important signal from euro area governments for embarking on a path of comprehensive deepening of economic integration. It would also present a clear trajectory for the future evolution of the euro area, thus framing expectations,” he told the European Parliament.

Draghi did not spell out what action the ECB might take, saying only a commitment by political leaders to stricter budget discipline and binding their economies more closely “is definitely the most important element to start restoring credibility. Other elements might follow, but the sequencing matters.”

In the short-term, economists expect the central bank to relieve pressure on banks and an economy heading into recession by cutting interest rates next week and announcing longer-term cheap liquidity tenders with easier collateral rules. Markets are pricing in a 25 basis point cut to 1 percent on Thursday.

Draghi, who faces some of the toughest decisions in the currency’s 12-year history after just one month in the job, said the ECB was aware many European banks were in difficulty because of stress on sovereign bonds, tight inter-bank funding markets and scarce collateral.

“Downside risks to the economic outlook have increased,” he said, adding that the ECB’s mandate was to maintain price stability “in both directions” — a rare indication that the bank is concerned about deflation risks as well as inflation.

Sarkozy voiced similar sentiments in words designed to reassure voters anxious about handing more power to Brussels. He called for an “intergovernmental” Europe and made no mention of the stronger role for the European Commission or the European Court of Justice sought by Berlin.

“Sovereignty can only be exercised with others. Europe doesn’t mean less sovereignty, but more sovereignty because it gives us a greater capacity to act,” Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy avoided calling directly for massive ECB action to buy bonds of troubled eurozone states or cut interest rates.

Two years into Europe’s debt crisis, investors are fleeing the eurozone bond market, European banks are dumping government debt, south European banks are bleeding deposits and a recession looms, fueling doubts about the survival of the single currency.

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