DAVOS, Switzerland – Leading finance chiefs sought to reassure anxious global business leaders on Friday that Europe is on track to solve its crippling debt crisis before it drags the world’s economies down. Europe’s top banker said investors, burned after trusting the region’s governments too much, now trust them too little.
The finance chiefs said the picture in Europe has changed over the past two months as the European Central Bank has loaned billions of euros to fragile banks, indebted countries have pushed through convincing reforms and EU leaders have come near to building a closer fiscal union that would make their common currency stronger.
Several also signalled Friday that Greece is close to clinching a crucial debt-reduction deal with private bondholders — a key element in Europe’s efforts to stem a two-year debt crisis that is causing ripples around the globe. The crisis is a central topic at the World Economic Forum, a gathering of government and business leaders at the Swiss ski resort of Davos.
“They’re making progress on reforms, they’re changing the institutions of Europe to put better discipline on fiscal policy,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. “You have three new governments doing some very tough things. You have an ECB doing what central banks have to do. You see them move to try to strengthen the financial sector.”
Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, said a combination of actions — including super-cheap, long-term loans to shaky banks on the continent and a couple of interest rate cuts — have helped Europe avoid deeper financial trouble.
“We have avoided a major credit crunch, a major lending crisis,” he said.
Draghi said borrowing rates would remain high “for quite a while” because bond markets are overestimating the risk involved in holding European government debt after years of underestimating it. But he called market pressure “the most potent engine for reform in different governments.”
Geithner said the fate of the U.S. economy — and by extension of the rest of the world — hinges on Europe’s debt crisis, along with potential tensions with Iran. He said the main piece of unfinished business for Europe is building a bigger fund to help troubled economies survive.
But while French Finance Minister Francois Baroin said that fund needs to be increased to calm markets, his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaeuble, indicated that his government is not prepared to do so. Germany, as Europe’s biggest economy, would face the biggest bill.
“We must not give the wrong incentives,” Schaeuble said. “You can make any figure. It will not work if the real problems will not be solved.”
Both, together with Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos Jurado and European Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn, agreed that the idea of issuing “eurobonds” backed jointly by all eurozone governments is a nonstarter for now. They didn’t rule out the possibility that such bonds could be introduced once confidence in Europe’s public finances is restored, with Guindos calling that a “final target.”
Schaeuble said eurobonds would provide bad incentives by allowing debt-ridden countries to “spend money you don’t have on the bill of others.”
Many economists have said eurobonds are needed to solve the crisis as they could reduce the borrowing costs of heavily indebted countries by pooling them with bonds of stronger economies like Germany’s.
Professor Nouriel Roubini, the renowned economist who predicted the financial crash of 2008, is one who thinks that eurobonds have to form part of a eurozone strategy to fend off the possibility of a breakup.
The eurozone “could be a slow-motion train wreck,” Roubini said.
Europe has been grappling with the crisis ever since Greece conceded at the end of 2009 that its public finances were in far worse shape than previously thought. Greece remains at the epicenter of the crisis over two years later. Its borrowing costs remain too high for it to borrow in the markets so a second European-led bailout is in the offing.
The finance chiefs signalled Friday that a deal is at hand that could help ease some of the near-term tensions.
Greece has been negotiating with the a group representing banks and other lenders in the hopes that they will forgive half of Greece’s debt in exchange for Greek assurances that it will pay back the other half without defaulting on its loans. The deal would also let Greece repay over a longer period at a lower interest rate — negotiators have been trying to agree on what that rate will be.
Schaeuble said he is “quite optimistic” about a deal, while Rehn said he hopes a deal can be reached “if not today, maybe by the weekend.”
Agreement between Greece and its creditors is needed before Europe and the International Monetary Fund agree to a second multibillion-euro bailout package.
At the heart of the problem is that the 17 countries that use the euro use a single currency but have different fiscal policies. That changes the nature of their debt, said Adair Turner, chairman of Britain’s banking regulator the Financial Services Authority.
“That debt is more equivalent to the State of California debt than the U.S. federal debt,” he said.
That’s why all but one of the 27 EU countries — the United Kingdom has refused to participate — are discussing a closer fiscal union. On Monday, leaders meet in Brussels to work out the details of that new compact.
Schaeuble and Baroin noted that even the agreement in principle to forge closer ties has calmed markets since a December summit, as borrowing rates have dropped and stock markets have risen.
“It’s amazing,” Draghi said. “If you compare today with even five months ago, the euro area is another world.”
The crisis threatens more than Europe: the U.N.’s refugee chief warned Friday that it is fueling conflicts around the world. Antonio Guterres told The Associated Press that rising food prices and growing unemployment are hitting those already at the bottom hardest, sparking conflict in places like South Sudan and exacerbating hotspots including Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
Frank Jordans and Edith Lederer in Davos and David McHugh in Frankfurt, Germany contributed to this story.