Italy's borrowing costs hit a euro lifetime peak of nearly 8 percent on Tuesday as pressure on eurozone finance ministers intensified to staunch a two-year-old debt crisis that is blighting the world economy.
Rome had to offer a record 7.89 percent yield to sell 3-year bonds, a huge leap from the 4.93 percent it paid in late October, and 7.56 percent for 10-year bonds, compared with 6.06 percent at that time.
The borrowing costs were above the levels at which Greece, Ireland and Portugal applied for international bailouts, but European stocks and bonds rallied in apparent relief at the strong demand, with the maximum 7.5 billion euros ($9.99 billion) sold.
"In an ideal world, these yields, and the fact that the 3-year was above 8 percent in the grey market this morning, would serve to give the Ecofin/Eurogroup a sense of added urgency, but this is a far from ideal world," said Peter Chatwell, rate strategist at Credit Agricole in London.
The euro and European markets had earlier dipped on a report in business daily La Tribune that ratings agency Standard & Poor's would downgrade France's AAA credit rating within 10 days, dealing a body blow to the eurozone's ability to rescue heavily indebted countries.
New Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti is due to outline his fiscal and economic reform plans to finance ministers of the 17-nation currency area later on Tuesday amid reports, denied in Washington and Rome, of a possible approach to the IMF.
Italy, with a 1.9 trillion euro debt pile — equivalent to 120 percent of economic output — needs to refinance some 340 billion euros of maturing debt next year with big redemptions starting in late January. It has promised to balance its budget in 2013 but Tuesday's auction suggested it will struggle to keep borrowing costs under control without international help.
Italian daily La Repubblica said EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn would tell eurozone ministers that Italy needs to introduce fiscal measures worth 11 billion euros immediately to meet its target.
In Brussels, Eurogroup ministers are expected to approve detailed plans to bolster their bailout fund to help prevent contagion in bond markets, under pressure from the United States and ratings agencies to stop the crisis spreading.
The newspaper report about France's credit rating came at a delicate time. France is the second largest guarantor of the EFSF bailout fund, and one of only six AAA states in the eurozone. S&P declined comment. French Finance Minister Francois Baroin, asked about the report, said the focus should not be solely on France.
The eurozone ministers are also set to release a long-delayed 8 billion euro loan installment for Greece, vital to stave off bankruptcy in December and buy time for negotiations on an uncertain second bailout program for Athens.
Underlining the threat to tottering European economies, ratings agency Moody's warned it may downgrade the subordinated debt of 87 banks across 15 countries due to concerns that their governments would be too cash-strapped to bail them out.
The greatest number of ratings to be reviewed were in Spain, Italy, Austria and France, Moody's said.
U.S. President Barack Obama pressed European Union officials on Monday to act quickly and decisively to resolve their sovereign debt crisis, which the White House said was weighing on the American economy.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama's message, delivered to top EU officials behind closed doors in Washington, was that: "Europe needs to take decisive action, conclusive action to handle this problem, and that it has the capacity to do so."
Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski made a dramatic appeal for Germany to show more leadership in the crisis.
"You know full well that nobody else can do it," he said in a speech in Berlin on Monday evening, referring to efforts to save Europe's monetary union.
"I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe's indispensable nation."
Tuesday's meeting of Eurogroup ministers was set to fix details of leveraging the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) so it can help Italy or Spain should they need aid.
Documents obtained by Reuters on Sunday showed the detailed guidelines for the EFSF were ready for approval, opening the way for new operations and multiplying the fund's effective size.
The documents spell out rules for EFSF intervention on the primary and secondary bond markets, for extending precautionary credit lines to governments, leveraging its firepower and its investment and funding strategies.
The EFSF guidelines will clear the way for the 440 billion euro facility to attract cash from private and public investors to its co-investment funds in coming weeks.
The European Central Bank (ECB), which is now buying bonds of Spain and Italy on the market to prevent their borrowing costs running out of control, has been urging eurozone ministers to finalize the technical work on the EFSF quickly.
Officials said the leveraging mechanisms could become operational in January, but that may be too late.
With Germany opposed to the idea of the ECB providing liquidity to the EFSF or acting as a lender of last resort, the eurozone needs a way of calming markets, where yields on Spanish, Italian and French government benchmark bonds have all been pushed to euro lifetime highs.
The ECB shows no sign yet of responding to widespread calls to massively increase its bond-buying.
It bought 8.5 billion euros of eurozone government debt in the latest week, at a time of acute turmoil, in line with its previous activity but well short of what economists say is necessary to turn market sentiment around.
Sources have said the Obama administration has also urged Europe to allow the ECB to act as lender of last resort as the U.S. Federal Reserve does.
Germany and France stepped up a drive on Monday for coercive powers to reject eurozone members' budgets that breach EU rules, alarming some smaller nations who fear the plans by-pass mechanisms for ensuring equal treatment.
Berlin and Paris aim to outline proposals for a fiscal union before an EU summit on Dec. 9 that is increasingly seen by investors as possibly the last chance to avert a breakdown of the single currency area.
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