Thursday, November 10, 2011

EU warns of recession in 2012

BRUSSELS: Europe warned on Thursday that its debt crisis was dragging the region towards a new recession, deepening the sense of foreboding as Italy and Greece struggled to put together new governments.

Amid a call by the head of the International Monetary Fund for an end to the political wrangling, it was still unclear who would emerge as the new leaders of Greece and Italy after both countries' premiers threw in the towel.

After doubts grew over Italy's ability to keep servicing its debts, the European Union's new economy tsar said the bloc faced tipping back into recession in 2012 due to a "vicious circle" of government debt, vulnerable banks and collapsed spending.

"Growth has stalled in Europe, and there is a risk of a new recession," Olli Rehn said as the EU released detailed forecasts for the eurozone and broader econonomy for the next two years, with GDP "now projected to stagnate until well into 2012."

Growth across the eurozone in 2012 would collapse to 0.5 percent, said the forecast, a steep drop from its previous prediction of 1.8 percent. The forecast for this year was also revised downwards from 1.6 to 1.5 percent.

The economy in Italy, the eurozone's third largest economy, would virtually stagnate in 2012 with growth of just 0.1 percent, according to the forecast.

Italy's growing crisis has already prompted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to announce his resignation. He will stand down after parliamentary approval this weekend of a package of economic reforms aimed at calming investor fears, which have pushed Italy's borrowing rates to alarming levels of seven percent.

The handover of power has led to fevered backroom negotiations, with former EU commissioner Mario Monti seen as the frontrunner to succeed Berlusconi.

Monti received the backing on Thursday of Berlusconi, with the outgoing premier saying that he would work "in the interests of the country".

The 68-year-old Monti earned a fearless reputation as the European Union's competition commissioner taking on US corporate giants Microsoft and General Electric and is seen as a possible head of a national unity government.

Monti's appointment was not a done deal however after several leading members of Berlusconi's centre-right coalition insisted on early elections.

"Italy is facing a difficult time and particularly arduous choices to overcome the crisis," said President Giorgio Napolitano, who will be forced to call early elections if there is no consensus on a new government.

"Europe is urgently awaiting important signals of a taking on of responsibility by one of its founders. We will be up to the task."

On Wednesday, Italy's 10-year bond yields flew over 7.0-percent to heights that could make it impossible for Rome to keep financing its 1.9-trillion euro ($2.6 trillion) debt.

In a key test after Berlusconi's resignation announcement, Italy paid record rates of over six percent at an auction of treasury bills on Thursday.

Greece is also been in political turmoil since Prime Minister George Papandreou announced on Sunday he was standing down, triggering days of bickering between political leaders over the succession.

There was hope however that a new transitional government could be announced on Thursday whose first task will be to ratify a crucial EU bailout deal.

A meeting between President Carolos Papoulias and top political leaders opened at 0800 GMT with reports indicating that former European Central Bank vice-president Lucas Papademos would be given the reins of government in Greece's worst post-war crisis.

The Athens stock exchange was up 2.19 percent in morning trade in expectation of a deal on the fourth day of secrecy-veiled negotiations between Papandreou and the head of the opposition, conservative leader Antonis Samaras.

Europe's main markets plunged in early trading but staged a slight rally later in the morning. Frankfurt rebounded 1.04 percent and Paris added 0.98 percent, despite rising pressures in the French bond market.

Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, said both Greece and Italy urgently needed to sort out their leadership difficulties.

"Political clarity is conducive to more stability ... it is much needed in Greece, it is much needed in Italy," the IMF chief told journalists in Beijing.

Confusion over the future leadership of both countries was "conducive to volatility," added Lagarde, who is on a two-day visit to China.

The turmoil in parts of the eurozone has prompted questions about the single currency's whole future, including in the continent's economic powerhouse Germany.

According to a report in the German business daily Handelsblatt, MPs in Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing conservative party are mulling a move to permit countries to exit the eurozone without leaving the EU.

A motion from a group of lawmakers, which calls for any country's departure to be on a voluntary basis, is set to be discussed at the Christian Democrats' (CDU) party congress next week, Handelsblatt said.

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