Record joblessness in eurozone; hope fades for quick ECB cure

Record joblessness in eurozone; hope fades for quick ECB cure

A woman gives money to a beggar on a street in Pontevedra, Northwest Spain, where the unemployment rate is 24.8 percent, in this file photo dated June 15. (Photo: Reuters)

August 01, 2012, Wednesday/ 16:14:00/ REUTERS

Joblessness in the eurozone hit on Tuesday its highest level since the single currency was born, a further sign of economic desperation as hopes erode that the bloc will be saved by its central bank this week.

An additional 123,000 people were out of work in the eurozone in June, figures from Eurostat showed, bringing the unemployment rate to a record high 11.2 percent across the 17 countries that use the single currency. The rate hides wide divergences, with unemployment as low as 4.5 percent in Austria and as high as 24.8 percent in Spain, where a shrinking economy makes it ever more difficult to pay off debt.

New data showed capital fleeing Spanish banks at a growing rate. Spain has come dangerously close to losing affordable access to financial markets, raising the prospect of a bailout that would swamp the eurozone's hastily erected defences. If Spain goes, Italy, with an economy twice the size, could follow. Eurozone leaders have spent the past week issuing statements promising to take whatever steps are necessary to rescue the currency, but none have raised expectations as much as Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank. His announcement last Thursday that the ECB would do whatever within its mandate to rescue the currency raised expectations that he will deliver forceful new steps this week to lower Spanish and Italian borrowing costs. But market sentiment has since soured, showing that investors doubt whether he can deliver. Germany, which says it is illegal for the ECB to bankroll government borrowing, squelched talk of any easing of its opposition to letting the eurozone's rescue fund borrow from the ECB so it could buy almost unlimited quantities of government bonds. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who has campaigned for concerted action by the eurozone's rescue funds and the ECB to bring down ruinous borrowing costs for Spain and Italy, struck an optimistic tone. "It is a tunnel but ... some light is appearing at the end of the tunnel. We and the rest of Europe are approaching the end of the tunnel," he told RAI public radio before talks in Paris with French President Francois Hollande. Monti said decisions taken at an EU summit last month were starting to bear fruit. "We are now seeing the results both in the willingness of European institutions as well as from the governments of individual countries, including Germany," he said. After lunching with Hollande, he said there was no time to lose and they had discussed deadlines, adding: "We cannot afford even a minute of distraction."

The ECB's Draghi promise last week to act to preserve the euro raised investors' expectations of a resumption of a long-suspended government bond-buying programme. Investors are waiting to see what the ECB announces at a meeting of its policy-setting Governing Council on Thursday. However, central bank sources cautioned against expecting dramatic action, saying bold moves could be at least five weeks away because other elements must first fall into place. They said Spain would first have to formally request a eurozone assistance programme, which it has so far resisted doing, and eurozone governments would have to agree to use their rescue funds to buy bonds in tandem with the ECB. Safe-haven German government bonds rallied on Tuesday and European shares fell as scepticism over the prospect of bold ECB action set in and Berlin repeated its opposition to a banking licence for the rescue fund.  

Money flees Spain

Monti, who will also visit Finland and Spain, said he was confident Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy would be able to tackle the country's problems. The scale of Rajoy's challenge was highlighted on Tuesday when figures showed that capital flight from Spain accelerated in May, the month when Madrid was forced to nationalise the fourth biggest lender, Bankia, and before eurozone countries agreed to help bail out Spanish banks. Capital outflows in the first five months of this year totalled 163.2 billion euros - equivalent to about 16 percent of economic output. The same period last year saw a net inflow of 14.6 billion euros. Spanish retail sales fell by 5.2 percent year-on-year on a calendar-adjusted basis in June, separate data showed, marking a 24th straight month of declines.

Near-bankrupt Greece meanwhile reported that it is fast running out of cash as it awaits the next instalment of aid from international lenders. Deputy Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said that in the absence of 3.2 billion euros needed to repay an ECB bond on Aug. 20, Athens would lack the money to pay everyday public expenses ranging from police and other public service wages to pensions and welfare benefits. "Cash reserves are almost zero," he told state NET television. "It is risky to say until when (they will last) ... but we are certainly on the brink."

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