Eurozone states get moving after ECB, Fed take centre role

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Urgent action on the eurozone debt crisis picked up Wednesday with emergency budget talks in Rome and Paris after the ECB laid down terms for shoring up Europe's single currency.

A new round of stock market free-falls underscored fragile sentiment despite a US Federal Reserve statement that forecast low US credit rates for the next two years.

Central banks have a central role in dealing with the trans-Atlantic debt crises, and it was only after the European Central Bank resumed buying public debt, including Italian and Spanish bonds, that pressure eased on Rome and Madrid.

The relief could be short lived however, since markets erupted again after Greece's finance minister some of the bonds included in its debt swap might stretch further than initially thought, and rumours swirled about a French credit ratings downgrade.

The ECB has tried to calm markets verbally but only intervened in the one for public debt after it was clear Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had heard ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet's oft-repeated call for a "quantum leap" in the tightening up of public finances.

The eurozone debt crisis, which threatens the entire bloc barring clear progress towards a new framework, is part of a wider, deeper drama based on massive US debt and fears of a new recession.

The ECB "actively" resumed purchases of bonds issued by distressed countries now including Italy, the third-biggest eurozone economy, and Spain, which is number four.

France, the second-biggest and an "AAA" credit rated country, has seen its borrowing rate drift away from benchmark 10-year German bunds meanwhile, and was hit by rumours it would be the next major economy to suffer a downgrade.

France swiftly denied the speculation and the ratings agency Fitch promptly confirmed Paris' top rating.

President Nicolas Sarkozy also promised new measures by August 24 to slash France's public deficit in a bid to reassure markets.

Sarkozy had broken off a holiday on the Riviera to fly back to Paris for an urgent cabinet meeting on the crisis.

France currently chairs the Group of Seven industrialised nations, and Finance Minister Francois Baroin said the new measures would take account of "global uncertainty" and a historic cut of the US rating by Standard & Poor's.

In Italy, Berlusconi has called parliament back early from summer holidays to vote Thursday on a constitutional amendment that would require a balanced budget.

He also met trade unions and business leaders Wednesday to nail down reforms they shunned just a month earlier, and press reports said measures should be adopted at an emergency cabinet meeting that might take place next week.

Italy welcomed a sharply lower rate of 2.959 percent when it tendered 6.5 billion euros ($9.3 billion) in 12-month bonds on Wednesday, down from the 3.67 percent it had to pay in a similar operation last month.

Italian borrowing rates had leapt on concern that Rome could be forced into seeking a bailout like those granted to Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

The burst of eurozone activity came a day after Trichet warned in a radio interview that Europe was facing "the worst crisis since the Second World War."

In this context, "we expect governments to do what we consider to be their work, their duty," he declared.

"We have been extremely clear with the Italian government over recent days in asking for a number of decisions to be taken," Trichet said.

Economists felt the ECB was now dictating terms to eurozone governments in exchange for controversial aid that only it can provide at short notice.

"The ECB is now accelerating the process of conforming to the standards it requires by really dictating here the changes it requires to provide support," Barclays Capital managing director Julian Callow told AFP.

Berenberg Bank senior economist Christian Schulz added that the ECB was "the only one that can impose conditions on Italy."

But Moneycorp analysts wrote that Trichet was also trying to make it clear the central bank needed help as well.

"His unspoken message was that, with reserves of around 500 billion euros, the ECB does not have the resources to soak up 1.5 trillion euros of Italian government bonds," they said.

© 2011 AFP

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