European efforts to solve a growing sovereign debt crisis have failed to quell market unease on the Continent, and the skepticism over Greece points to continued volatility this week.
Among fresh warning signs, Italy’s cost of borrowing has jumped to the highest rate since the country adopted the euro. Others signs include pressures building in the plumbing of Europe’s banking system. While those pressures are not yet at the levels experienced during the 2008 financial crisis, when some markets in the United States froze altogether, they are high enough to cause worry, analysts say.
Even as Greece reached an agreement on Sunday to form a coalition government meant to avert the collapse of the latest bailout plan for the euro zone, investors are still demanding greater certainty on how Europe would pay for a rescue package aimed at stopping the Greek financial contagion from spreading to Italy or Spain.
“This is a bit of a sideshow,” Mark D. Luschini, chief strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott, said of the shifting political leadership in Greece. “Markets will react favorably to this, but they won’t rally hard on the news. Italy is the bigger issue.”
In the United States, credit markets tightened earlier this year during a political stand-off over the debt ceiling and the ratings downgrade of the country’s long-term debt by Standard & Poor’s, but conditions have eased since then.
European banks are likely to remain wary about lending to one another, analysts predict, and investors will continue to require high interest rates on the billions of euros in loans Italy needs each month to keep its economy afloat.
The yield on 10-year Italian notes has surpassed that on Spanish debt by nearly a full percentage point, reaching 6.51 percent on Monday after leaders at a meeting last week of the Group of 20 nations failed to come up with details on how to stop the European crisis from spreading. The rising yield is troubling because once the interest rates on the debt of Greece and Portugal surpassed 7 percent they shot up far higher, requiring those countries to turn to outside sources of financing. Rates on their debt remain in double digits.
At the end of last month, Italy issued 3 billion euros worth of bonds at an interest rate of more than 6 percent, about 1.5 percentage points higher than it had had to pay as recently as the summer. The extra bond yields are adding as much as 3 billion euros (about $4.1 billion ) annually in additional interest payments, estimates Tobias Blattner, a former economist at the European Central Bank who is an economist at Daiwa Securities in London.
Analysts are concerned that if interest rates on Italian debt keep rising, the country may no longer be able to afford to borrow on the open markets and instead would have to turn to official lenders like the European Union or the International Monetary Fund.
The latest rate “is a warning,” said Mark McCormick, currency strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman. “Seven percent would be a point of no return.”
The European Central Bank is providing another gauge of European stress — the amount of sovereign bonds it is now buying on an almost daily basis. The central bank is trying to provide a market for the debt of countries like Italy and keep interest rates from rising to punishing levels.
This year, the amount of sovereign debt held by the central bank has more than doubled, to over 150 billion euros. Many analysts say they think the bank would have to buy bonds on a much larger scale to stop interest rates from creeping higher, let alone drive yields substantially lower.
European banks, worried about each others’ exposure to bad debts, have demanded an increasingly higher interest rate to lend euros to one another. The rate, measured by a gauge called Euribor-OIS, was 20 basis points as recently as June, but has since jumped to 90 to 100 basis points. (A basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point.) The current rate, however, is still far below levels in 2008 and 2009 during the financial crisis, when it reached more than 2 percent.
Since May, sources of dollars have also been drying up, as United States money market funds have pulled back from buying the short-term debt of European banks.
According to Alex Roever, who tracks short-term credit markets for JPMorgan Chase, the agreement in Brussels on the latest euro zone rescue plan has not persuaded money market funds to jump back into the European market.
One of the greatest uncertainties for investors remains the exact nature of the latest bailout vehicle being assembled. The proposed $1.4 trillion European Financial Stability Facility is intended to keep Italy from getting swept up in the debt contagion and so prevent Europe’s crisis from metastasizing to a new level and damaging the global economy.
“It has taken so long for the pieces to come together — and there is still a lot of uncertainty about how the agreement will work — that it is undermining the confidence of investors,” Mr. Roever said. “It didn’t encourage anyone to pile back in.”
Instead, with dollars hard to come by, many banks must turn to the open foreign-exchange market, where the cost of swapping euros for dollars has spiked, another warning sign about the operation of money markets, although the cost is still well below levels at the end of 2008.
As European banks have lent less to each other, they have instead socked away cash at the European Central Bank. Banks’ deposits at the central bank have shot up at the same time that borrowing from the central bank has risen.
“Banks are so nervous to lend to one another, they are using the E.C.B. as a clearinghouse,” said Guy Lebas, chief fixed-income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott.
Michael Gapen of Barclays Capital in New York says he prefers credit-default swaps as an indicator of sovereign risk. The swaps provide a measure of the cost of insuring against a default on debt.
“It should directly map into probability of default,” he said. “It tends to lead bond markets.”
But other analysts say credit-default swaps may be compromised as an indicator after an agreement was reached to allow Greece to write off 50 percent of the debt owed to some banks without triggering the insurance.
The cost of insuring a basket of Western European sovereign debt eased a little around the time of a summit meeting in Brussels at the end of October, but it has once again approached record highs. And insurance rates on the debt of Spain — and especially Italy — have risen sharply since the summer.
The annual cost to insure $10 million of the debt of a basket of big European banks rose to more than $300,000 in mid-September, the data provider Markit said. It has since dropped back to about $245,000 annually, but remains at stressed levels — and some analysts see it staying there.
“The markets are looking and hoping for a stable Greek government that is able to sustain domestic and external support,” said Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief executive of the bond investment giant Pimco. “A coalition government that is simply seen as a transition to new elections would have difficulty.”
We need your help to propel Truthout into the new year
As we look toward the new year, we’re well aware of the obstacles that lie in the path to justice. But here at Truthout, we are encouraged and emboldened by the courage of people worldwide working to move us all forward — people like you.
If you haven’t yet made your end-of-year donation to support our work, this is the perfect moment to do so: Our year-end fundraising drive is happening now, and we must raise $150,000 by the end of December.
Will you stand up for truly independent, honest journalism by making a contribution in the amount that’s right for you? It only takes a few seconds to donate by card, Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, or Venmo — we even accept donations of cryptocurrency and stock! Just click the red button below.