Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) — German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck said euro-region countries may be forced to bail out cash-strapped members of the 16-nation bloc, going further than his counterparts in saying euro states can’t be allowed to fail.
“Some countries are slowly getting into difficulties with their payments,” Steinbrueck said late yesterday in a speech in Dusseldorf. “The euro-region treaties don’t foresee any help for insolvent countries, but in reality the other states would have to rescue those running into difficulty.”
Steinbrueck’s comments underscore mounting investor concerns as European nations pile on debt to bail out banks and counter the deepest recession since World War II. The EU governing treaty says member states aren’t liable for other members’ obligations.
While declining to identify countries facing problems, the German finance chief said Ireland, which has a widening budget deficit, is in a “very difficult situation.” The comment came in response to a question from the audience. Ireland’s debt- rating outlook was cut by Moody’s Investors Service Jan. 30.
The European Commission predicts budget shortfalls this year of 11 percent of gross domestic product in Ireland, 3.7 percent in Greece, 6.2 percent in Spain and 3.8 percent in Italy, compared with 2.9 percent in Germany. The EU ceiling is 3 percent.
The euro fell below $1.26 for the first time since early December. The difference in yield, or spread, between 10-year Irish and German bonds widened nine basis points to 257 basis points today. It widened by almost six times since the middle of last year as investors demanded higher premiums to hold Irish debt.
The Irish government is committed to restoring sustainability to public finances by 2013, the Dublin-based finance ministry said today in an e-mailed statement. At 41 percent of gross domestic product, the country’s debt is below the EU average of 60 percent, it said.
EU rules don’t “really constrain the ability of euro area countries to support one another during a period of exceptional stress,” David Mackie, chief European economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in London, said in a research note. “It’s hard to imagine that the region as a whole wouldn’t come up with a package of measures to support the individual economy.”
Governments including Germany’s may call in help from international organizations first before committing funds and pushing their own budgets deeper into the red to help others.
The German government, presiding over Europe’s biggest economy, is “very unlikely” to provide help to troubled euro- region members by selling bonds jointly, Juergen Michels, an economist at Citigroup Inc. in London, said in an interview, adding that it would be a “very expensive solution.”
“The most likely option is that the European Investment Bank or some other multinational organization will start supporting these countries by buying government bonds or by providing direct support,” Michels said. “That would help narrow spreads and reduce refinancing costs.”
Investors should keep buying bonds of European governments that have “more flexibility in funding requirements in the short term,” Barclays Plc analysts said today.
It’s better to be “adding positions here rather than in the periphery, where any renewed funding concerns may weigh more heavily,” Huw Worthington, a fixed-income strategist at Barclays Capital in London, wrote in a research note.
The chance of Ireland defaulting on its debts is “remote,” Moody’s Investors Service analyst Dietmar Hornung said today in a telephone interview. “Our rating and outlook on Ireland remain appropriate” and “Ireland remains a creditworthy issuer.”
Widening yield spreads are “worrying developments,” Luxembourg Finance Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who represents the countries sharing the euro at international meetings, said at a Group of Seven gathering in Rome on Feb. 14, according to an unpublished prepared “speaking note.”
Michels said the EU can help governments that are finding it hard to sell their bonds without violating the bloc’s “no bail-out” clause. Any insolvency of a euro region country would be “fraught with significant costs” for the EU as a whole.
To contact the reporters on this story: Rainer Buergin in Berlin at email@example.com; Holger Elfes in Dusseldorf at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Updated: February 17, 2009 11:12 EST
By Rainer Buergin and Holger Elfes