Struggling Italy holds patriot bond drive

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Italy held a patriotic drive to encourage people to buy bonds on Monday in a desperate effort to prop up an ailing market after warnings from France and Germany that Rome's debt could sink the eurozone.

Italian banks meanwhile waived their fees on bond purchases for a day in a special initiative aimed at propping up a market that has been sliding for months amid concern over Italy's 1.9-trillion-euro ($2.5-trillion) debt.

Long-term borrowing costs have shot up as high as 8.0 percent and in a sale on Friday rates jumped to 6.504 percent on six-month bonds and to 7.814 percent on two-year bonds, reflecting deep investor unease over Italy's prospects.

The Treasury on Monday raised 567 million euros ($759 million) in bonds indexed to eurozone inflation due in 2023 but the rate jumped to 7.3 percent from a previous sale at 4.6 percent while the amount was less than expected.

Leading business people, students and even footballers declared they would take part in Monday's initiative entitled "BTP Day" ("Bond Day") but there appeared to be little take-up among ordinary people.

"I was expecting a lot of movement but until now there's been little demand as far as I know," said Francesco Montuori, the manager in central Rome of a branch of Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy's largest retail bank.

Many people did not know about the initiative despite ample media coverage in recent days, with only one man, 50-year-old Marco saying as he walked into the bank: "Yes, I heard about it but I'm not interested."

Bank customers in Milan said they did not have the means to invest in bonds.

The Italian Banking Association admitted the initiative was "symbolic" but said the drive could be important as a show of "Italians' confidence in their own country ... (and) improve the judgment of global markets."

Financial blogger Paolo Barrai, however, bought advertising space in Libero newspaper to warn Italians about taking part.

"At the moment it's risky for a normal Italian family to buy bonds. This has to be clear because if they need to sell before the due date there is a danger of losing money," he said in the advert.

Calling the drive "pure populism," he added: "Confronted with this uncertainty, an act of pride by the banks could have been to move BTP Day by a dozen days after Monti adopts the necessary measures."

Prime Minister Mario Monti's cabinet is expected to launch a raft of measures including a possible increase in sales tax, a reform of pensions and a tax on property, at a cabinet meeting next Monday.

Europe meanwhile was again in turmoil after Moody's ratings agency warned that every member of the European Union could have its credit rating downgraded without firm action to stem the eurozone debt crisis.

The OECD in Paris also warned that the eurozone crisis was now one step away from plunging advanced economies into recession and even depression, with waves of bankruptcies and wealth destruction in Europe.

The OECD analysis comes amid reports, denied by the IMF, that Italy has been seeking a 600-billion-euro ($800 billion) bailout, and a recognition by Germany and France that an Italian debt default would kill the euro.

The reported IMF deal would give Monti a window of 12 to 18 months to implement urgent reforms "by removing the necessity of having to refinance the debt," Italian daily La Stampa reported on Sunday, citing IMF officials.

The report, denied by the IMF, said the global lender would guarantee rates of 4.0 percent or 5.0 percent on the loan -- far better than Italian borrowing costs on commercial markets.

Italy needs to refinance about 400 billion euros in debt next year.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a policy forum for 34 advanced economies, forecast that the Italian economy would grow by just 0.7 percent this year and shrink by 0.5 percent in 2012.

The European Commission earlier this month forecast that Italian output would rise by just 0.1 percent in 2012.

The Italian government is forecasting growth of 0.6 percent next year.

© 2011 AFP

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