Investors sold off Irish and Portuguese bonds Thursday, driving the borrowing costs of both countries to euro-era records and reinforcing worries about the heavy debts some European governments are carrying.
Analysts say Ireland, in particular, faces a high-pressure few weeks ahead as its government must convince international investors that it won't have to tap an emergency EU-IMF fund — and won't keep sinking billions more into its most debt-crippled bank.
Worries over Ireland's ability to fund its own debts and those of five state-insured banks have driven the interest rates on Irish bonds to a series of record highs dating back to the 1999 launch of the euro. Rates on bonds rise when they're being dumped by investors, since prices and yields move in opposite directions.
Two years ago, before Ireland's long-booming economy went into freefall amid a burst property bubble, its bond interest rates were nearly identical to those of Germany, the benchmark of safety in the 16-nation eurozone.
But those days of viewing the Irish as financially secure as the Germans are long gone. Investors today demand increasingly higher Irish rates as compensation for their belief that the Irish are among the most likely in Europe to fail to pay them back. Greece is top of that list, the Portuguese in third place.
The gap between the payouts for German and Irish 10-year bonds surpassed 4.25 percent Thursday for the first time, the latest in a series of such records.
The Irish treasuries were offering yields of 6.54 percent late Thursday, up 0.2 points on the day, compared to just 2.285 percent for the German notes.
Conversely, the payout on Germany's flagship bonds fell sharply Thursday after the German government surprised investors by announcing much better-than-expected tax collections and plans to slash its borrowing plans by nearly 30 billion euros ($40 billion) in the final quarter of 2010. That made German bonds an even more attractive safe haven.
Ireland insists there's no chance it will seek international aid, noting that its bond sales have secured government funding through mid-2011, so there's no need.
But Finance Minister Brian Lenihan is hedging his bets on whether he will allow partial defaults on loans owed by nationalized Anglo Irish Bank.
The government has received European Union approval to extend blanket state insurance to Irish-owned banks through the end of the year. But Lenihan has yet to confirm whether the government will actually do this for Anglo Irish, Ireland's biggest financial sinkhole.
Anglo gambled heavily on galloping property markets in Ireland, Britain and the United States — and how faces loan writeoffs estimated to exceed 35 billion euros, a fifth of Ireland's shrinking GDP. Most of the money it loaned came from foreign bond holders, who currently are guaranteed a full repayment under current terms of Ireland's state insurance.
Irish media are speculating that Lenihan will opt not to keep offering a guaranteed repayment to Anglo's lowest tier of "subordinated" bondholders, who if fully insured against losses would represent a 1.7 billion euro bill for Irish taxpayers.
Until the outside world is convinced that Ireland has got its deficit and bank-bailout costs capped and turned around, analysts say the Irish will keep paying over the odds.
Ironically, if the Irish gave up and turned to help from the EU-IMF emergency fund established earlier this year to bail out the Greeks, they would be able to borrow at a rate of 5 percent. Instead, earlier this week Ireland drummed up 1 billion euros in an auction of 8-year bonds that, to be sold, required a rate of more than 6 percent.
Portugal faces similarly tough choices. It's just beginning the process of slashing its spending to get a deficit under control, and its latest bond issues this week also commanded punitive premiums: A 750 million euro auction of new 4-year and 10-year bonds paid out yields of 4.69 percent and 6.24 percent, respectively.
On Thursday Portugal's 10-year bonds were offering yields 4.08 percentage points above their German counterparts, another euro-era record.
In Berlin, the European Union's financial and monetary affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn, told a conference he didn't envisage that any debt-crippled member of the 16-nation eurozone would default on loans.
"The potential costs, both economic and political costs, of this for the eurozone and the European Union would be so devastating that we will do everything to avoid it. And I'm certain we will be able to avoid it," said Rehn, who didn't comment on whether the Irish should, or would, seek an EU-IMF loan. He previously has discounted such a move as unnecessary given Ireland's commitment to emergency budgets and deficit-cutting through 2014.
Ireland also confirmed Thursday it remains mired in recession, further depressing sentiment for its loan-repayment prospects. Its second-quarter GDP figure slid 1.2 percent versus the previous quarter, surprising economists who had expected a 0.5 percent increase.
Greece, which is rebuilding its finances with 110 billion euros in help from the EU-IMF fund, says international bond speculators are unfairly punishing the weakest euro-zone members. Greek debt is rated the world's riskiest; its 10-year bonds are paying a giant 9-percentage point interest premium above German treasuries.
Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said his country's bonds ought to be requiring lower interest rates than before the EU-IMF bailout, but instead were higher.
"It's clear that risk was underpriced then, but it's massively overpriced now," he said.
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