Euro crisis simmers with banks under stress
FRANKFURT, Germany—Further signs of stress emerged Tuesday to indicate that Europe's most recent summit agreement to get the euro countries to tighten rules against excessive government spending has only made limited progress in pulling the continent out of its debt crisis.
While figures showed that Europe's banks parked more money at the European Central Bank than they have at any other time this year, Italy's borrowing rates traded at levels not far from those that forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal into seeking financial bailouts.
The news that overnight deposits by banks to the ECB hit a year high are a sign of distress and mistrust in the system, and come just days after the continent's banking regulator warned that they need to raise much more capital to plug potential losses from shaky European government debt.
The ECB said banks left euro346.4 billion ($458 billion) with the ECB at a low 0.25 percent interest rate rather than lend it to other banks, indicating they were concerned they might not be paid back. That topped a previous high from Friday of euro334.9 billion.
The rise in their deposits comes in the wake of an agreement by European leaders to forge a new treaty among the 17 members of the eurozone and as many as nine other EU members to toughen rules against accumulating excessive government debts. The treaty won't be completed until March and tries to address long-term issues, while markets are questioning governments' ability to pay their debts in the shorter term of the next several months.
"Market sentiment remains cautious regarding the strains in European debt markets," said Nick Bennenbroek, an analyst at Wells Fargo Bank.
Fears of default have led to elevated yields on bonds issued by Italy, the latest focus of the crisis. Yields on Italian 10-year bonds traded at an elevated 6.66 percent on Tuesday, close to the 7 percent levels that led to the bailed-countries giving up on bond market borrowing. Italy is considered too large to bail out.
Banks have also been under strain because they hold government bonds and could suffer losses in case of a default. They are also being pressed by the European Union to find money to increase their financial buffers against losses.
Shares in Germany's Commerzbank AG fell over 5 percent Tuesday amid speculation the bank might need more government support after the European Banking Authority last week said it was euro5.3 billion short of new capital requirements. The bank has said it won't take more government help.
Italy did manage to raise euro7 billion ($9.4 billion) in a bond auction Monday, though the relatively strong demand was boosted by a bank association promotion waiving fees to buy the bonds.
Investors remain worried about the future of both Italy and the wider 17-nation eurozone despite an EU deal last week to tighten controls on spending. While that deal will boost longer-term budget discipline, it does little to lower current debt and exposed deepening political division.
Last Friday's deal also does not fix the deeper imbalances within the eurozone, such as wide gaps between countries with competitive economies and trade surpluses and those which have poor business environments that limit growth and ability to pay debt.
The impact of the agreement to work out a new debt treaty has been blunted by Britain's decision not to join and questions about how it would be enforced. EU officials sought an accord among all 27 EU states, but Britain did not join the agreement after its request to shelter its financial services sector from what Britain considers burdensome regulation was rejected.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso urged British Prime Minister David Cameron not to block EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice for supporting and helping enforce the treaty.
Barroso said "it is the European institutions that are the best guarantee that the interest of all European states, including the U.K., will be fully respected."
There are other potential hitches. Through the new intergovernmental treaty, the participating countries can agree to go beyond the rules in the current EU Treaty -- but can't sign up to new rules that contradict existing ones.
That is set to cause problems for one of the central summit decisions -- creating more automatic sanctions for budget sinners.
Under the current EU Treaty, the European Commission can declare a country to be in excessive deficit -- a move that forces the country to spell out in detail how it will bring down its deficit and debt or face sanctions -- only if a qualified majority of EU countries agree.
The summit decisions aim to simplify this procedure, by giving the commission the right to declare a state to have an excessive deficit unless a qualified majority of countries vote against it.
Steinhauser contributed from Brussels. Frances D'Emilio contributed from Rome.