Spain pays higher rates in crucial bond issue

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Spain endured a test of fire on the bond markets Thursday, raising 3.3 billion euros ($4.7 billion) but paying a hefty rate in the midst of a growing eurozone debt crisis.

Refusing to back out despite the risk premium on Spanish debt soaring to a euro-era record on the eve of the bond auction, Spain proved it can still borrow on the markets.

But the price was high.

Spain sold 2.2 billion euros in three-year bonds. But the yield, or annual return offered to buyers, surged to 4.813 percent from 4.037 percent at the previous comparable auction June 2, the Bank of Spain said.

The state also sold 1.1 billion euros in four-year bonds for a yield that shot to 4.984 percent from the 2.862 percent offered at the previous comparable auction in October 2009.

Higher rates had been expected after the risk premium on Spanish 10-year bonds over safe-bet German bonds peaked Wednesday at 407 basis points -- the highest since the introduction of the euro in 1999.

Finance Minister Elena Salgado held a crisis meeting on the eve of the bond issue with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to grapple with the market turmoil that has targetted Spain and Italy's debt.

Afterwards, she said Spain's government had covered two-thirds of its financing needs for this year but said it was "good to show again Spain's capacity to go to the markets."

The high rates on offer lured investors, with requests for the bonds amounting to 7.4 billion euros, outstripping supply by more than two to one, the Bank of Spain said.

But, according to the daily El Mundo, the Treasury also ensured success by striking agreements with 22 financial institutions under which each would buy three percent of the issue, thus guaranteeing it would sell two-thirds of the offer.

"Yes, we are managing to finance ourselves but the cost is very high," said Ivan San Felix, financial analyst at Spanish brokerage Renta 4.

"Investors are taking part, that inspires confidence, but the costs have to come down."

The eurozone debt crisis has already claimed Greece, Ireland and Portugal, forcing them to seek bailouts from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

There are growing fears that Italy and Spain, the eurozone's third- and fourth-biggest economies, could be next in line, developments that would dwarf previous bailouts and could undermine the euro itself.

Spain says it should not be lumped together with the three lame ducks now under EU and IMF rescue programmes.

Madrid argues it has pursued tough reforms including raising the retirement age, relaxing collective bargaining rules, making it easier to hire and fire employees, cutting civil servant wages, forcing banks to bolster their balance sheets and placing assets such as the national lottery on the block for sale.

Pressure mounted for the European Central Bank to calm the storm by at least signalling a willingness to buy Spain and Italy's sovereign bonds on the debt market.

"As long as the ECB stays on the sidelines, a speculative, fear-driven withdrawal of market funding can feed a self-fulfilling insolvency for either or both sovereigns," Citi Economics analyst Willem Buiter said in a report.

"It follows, in our view, that the ECB will have to come in or accept a couple of fundamentally unwarranted large sovereign defaults and the biggest banking crisis since 1931."

© 2011 AFP

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