Berlusconi to stay on, seek growth amid debt woes

By Colleen Barry

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 3 2011 2:31 p.m. MDT

Spain's finance Minister Elena Salgado gestures during a news conference after a financial crisis meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid Wednesday Aug. 3, 2011. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has postponed the start of his near three-week summer vacation to monitor the financial crisis.

Paul White, Associated Press

MILAN — Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi vowed on Wednesday to complete his five-year term and focus his government policies on growth to calm the market turmoil that threatens to plunge one of Europe's biggest economies into the debt crisis.

After a volatile day on markets, in which Italian borrowing rates touched a record high, Berlusconi told parliament that Italy "has not done little" in response to the crisis. "But we know there is more to do."

Addressing the lower house of parliament in Rome after financial markets had closed for the day, he said Italy needs to promote competitiveness and growth.

"Our duty as the government is to work for the good of Italy, making the economy take off," he said.

Berlusconi said the €70 billion ($99 billion) in austerity measures passed last month will balance the budget by 2014, and emphasized that €9 billion infrastructure projects mostly in the poorer south approved earlier Wednesday will help promote growth.

He emphasized that Italian banks remained solid and that investors who were pushing up Italy's borrowing rates did not recognize the country's fundamental strengths: a stable banking system, low levels of private sector indebtedness — half that of the United States and Britain — and a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

"I am speaking to you as an entrepreneur with three companies listed on the stock exchange," Berlusconi said, to boos from the opposition benches.

Growing market jitters have intensified opposition calls for Berlusconi's resignation, with center-left leaders claiming there was a lack of international confidence in the Italian leader. But Berlusconi was firm that he will stay in office until his mandate expires in 2013.

"Everyone does his own part: stability has always been the winning strategy against speculation," he said.

Italy's 10-year borrowing rate briefly spiked to 6.21 percent before easing to 6.06 percent.

Spain was also under the market spotlight, forcing Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to delay his vacation by two days. Its 10-year borrowing rate edged down to 6.23 percent from Tuesday's euro-era high of 6.45 percent.

Both countries' yields have soared in recent days, suggesting investors are worried they may eventually need help with their debt.

"The upward march in Spanish and Italian bond yields is evidence of the relentlessness of the sovereign debt crisis," said Jane Foley, an analyst at Rabobank International.

The revival of the debt crisis is mainly due to a global sell-off by traders of any investments that appear risky — such as the bonds of Italy and Spain — after indicators suggested the U.S. economy is slowing sharply.

Whereas both Italy and Spain could continue borrowing at their current rates, their financing costs would increase, adding to the debt pile that is the source of market worries. The fear is that the global market turmoil will push the two countries closer toward needing a bailout.

Bailouts for Spain or Italy would be far more expensive than the rescue packages agreed for Greece, Ireland and Portugal and would likely overwhelm the eurozone's finances.

Last month, the leaders of the 17 eurozone countries agreed to changes to the region's rescue fund that would allow it to act pre-emptively, for instance by providing short-term loans or buying up ailing bonds on the open market, before a country is in a full-blown crisis.

However, actually implementing those decisions takes time, and in many cases the changes to the fund's powers will have to be approved by national parliaments, most of which are currently on summer break. At the same time, analysts worry that the fund is currently too small to make much of a difference.

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