Euro finance chiefs sign bail out fund

Euro finance ministers on Monday signed papers establishing a 440-billion-euro ($A649 billion) fund to dig debt-laden partners out of the mire, fresh from a dizzying fall for the single currency.

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“We signed a few moments ago,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker after world stocks plummeted on growing anxiety that non-euro Hungary was entering a Greece-style meltdown in its public finances.

Juncker, chair of the group of finance ministers, said “some member states” had still to ratify but a diplomat stressed that Germany had put pen to paper on the facility worth 525 billion dollars.

Almost one month after countries agreed a trillion-dollar “backstop” facility in conjunction with the IMF, EU economic and monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn said the step showed there was “no uncertainty left.”

Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy are among those expected to tap the fund, but Rehn warned that obtaining cash loans could be as long and drawn-out an affair as proved the case with Greece.

Loans would be “strictly conditional” and there “would have to be a programme agreed with the country concerned with the EU and the IMF,” meaning severe spending cuts and structural reforms to tax and labour markets.

Ministers assessed multi-billion-euro programmes of cuts already announced by Spain and Portugal in a bid to meet stricter targets to reduce their deficits, but both Rehn and Juncker warned that more would be needed in Madrid and Lisbon.

“More needs to be done and I can only encourage both countries to pursue structural reforms for instance in labour market and banking reforms,” said Rehn.

Juncker said it was “clear (that) further consolidation is needed beyond 2011.”

The duo immediately returned to the negotiating table, joined by ministers from the full 27-nation European Union who were to address the heated issue of how far to join up cross-border “economic government” — hours after planned talks between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were abruptly postponed.

Merkel herself on Monday unveiled deep government spending cuts, in moves echoed in Britain.

“The markets want to see not only explanations, but also action,” her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, had earlier underlined.

While the speed of the euro’s fall was a worry for Rehn, Juncker insisted he was not concerned — and the eurozone also gave its blessing, to be formally endorsed by EU peers on Tuesday, to Estonia becoming the 17th eurozone country from January 1, 2011.

The euro had earlier dipped below 1.19 dollars for the first time since March 2006 and also plunged to its lowest level in more than eight years against the yen.

Neil McKinnon of VTB Capital said worries about a “double-dip” recession were rising.

In Washington, the IMF warned eurozone countries they must move to “complete the project of monetary union,” with massive reforms to cross-border economic governance.

However, International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn insisted that Hungary’s financial situation provided “no special reason for concern.”

Leading Hungarian government figures have said their country is in a “state comparable to that of Greece” and that “the bankruptcy of the state is close,” leading to a sharp rise in its bond yield.

But Austrian Finance Minister Josef Proll, whose banks are said to be heavily exposed in their neighbouring land, also stressed: “We have absolutely no reason to be worried now.

“We have opened the umbrella,” he added of the huge bailout fund.

Rehn explained that individual guarantees to cover loans would come from eurozone countries, with a premium to put a veneer of collective solidarity on the deal also being levied.

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