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The Globe and Mail

Relief in Spain, tension in Greece for euro zone

Outside view shows the Euro sculpture in front of the headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt.


The embattled euro zone cleared a major funding test on Thursday when Spain romped through a key bond sale, while signs pointed to only a mild recession for the 17-nation bloc.

Talks between Greece and its creditors remained deadlocked, however, threatening to derail a needed bailout and keep the region's all-consuming debt crisis on the boil.

A Reuters poll of economists pointed to the euro zone wallowing in a mild recession until the second half of this year, but contracting by just 0.3 per cent for the year compared with a forecast three months ago of 0.9 per cent.

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At the same time, the International Monetary Fund is expecting the euro zone economy to contract by 0.5 per cent in 2012, according to draft document reported by the Italian news agency ANSA.

Neither figure is comforting, but both suggest a downturn is seen as short and shallow.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, speaking in Abu Dhabi, repeated his view that the euro zone economy is fragile.

"We see a softening business cycle in Europe with significant downside risk. We also see some tentative signs... but I have to be quite cautious here... some tentative signs of stabilization of economic activity at low levels," he said.

"All this is subject to downside risk, in other words it can get worse."

One key risk is if the debt crisis intensifies, pushing borrowing costs to unsustainable levels and driving a further wedge between the robust northern euro zone economies such as Germany and The Netherlands, and the debt-laden south.

Spain's auction of benchmark 10-year bonds was a major test of investor appetite in the peripheral euro zone country. Short-term auctions last week had been successful but Thursday's sale was for longer-dated bonds.

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It raised more than forecast at €3-billion, at a yield of 5.403 per cent, a drop of more than 1.5 percentage points since the same bond was last sold in November.

The sale signalled that markets have largely shrugged off last week's salvo of euro zone rating downgrades from Standard & Poor's, an impression reinforced by a strong bond sale in Paris.

"These results are bullish for both Spain and the broader periphery and stand to further underpin the ongoing 'risk-on' tone... For now.. the glass half-full brigade have the upper hand," said Richard McGuire, rate strategist at Rabobank in London.

Euro zone bond auctions have been largely successful since the ECB offered nearly half a trillion euros of cheap, three-year loans to push investors towards buying government bonds and lowering borrowing costs.

"We start seeing also a fall of the longer-term part of the yield curve as well. I think that by and large this measure has really avoided a serious funding crisis that European banks might have to face," Mr. Draghi told reporters.

Greece remains the fly in the ointment, with Athens locked in negotiations with creditors on a deal to reschedule its debt and avoid an uncontrolled default.

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Nearly a week after talks hit an impasse, the two sides remain bogged down over the coupon, or interest payment, that Greece must offer on new bonds under a debt swap.

Athens and its foreign lenders offered a coupon of just over 3.5 per cent during a two-hour meeting on Wednesday, but bondholders rejected that as too low, one source said. They were angling for a coupon of at least 4 per cent, one source said.

A senior Greek official also played down speculation that terms of a deal had been nearly pinned down, saying: "Nothing has been concluded yet."

The two sides must thrash out a deal within days to pave the way for Greece to receive a new infusion of aid and avoid bankruptcy when €14.5-billion ($18.5-billion U.S.) of bond redemptions fall due in late March.

Kept afloat by bailout loans, Greece faces the threat of having to leave the euro zone and slumping into further economic and social misery if it fails to come to grips with its debt, including securing a deal with the private bond holders.

"Now is the crucial moment in the final battle for the debt swap and the crucial moment in the final and definitive battle for the new bailout," Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told parliament. "Now, now! Now is the time to negotiate for the sake of the country."

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