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Eurozone bailout fund prepares for the spotlight

By Gabriele Steinhauser

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 20 2011 4:20 a.m. MDT

In this Monday Oct. 3, 2011 photo a view of the entrance of the European Financial Stability Facility office in Luxembourg, is seen Monday Oct. 3, 2011. After the Oct. 23 summit of EU leaders, the EFSF will wield massive financial power to contain the eurozone's debt troubles and keep them from plunging the global economy into another recession and putting thousands of people out of a job.

Yves Logghe, Associated Press

LUXEMBOURG — Europe's financial fire brigade is hiring.

Successful candidates should have the "ability to develop innovative legal solutions," an "eye for detail," and the "ability to argue convincingly and achieve a consensus among colleagues and third parties," proclaims the website of the European Financial Stability Facility.

And those skills could come in handy pretty quickly.

After this Sunday's summit of EU leaders, the EFSF will wield massive financial power to contain the eurozone's debt troubles and keep them from plunging the global economy into another recession and putting thousands of people out of a job.

And yet the bailout fund, backed by €780 billion ($1.1 trillion) in financial guarantees from the 17 euro states, has a tiny staff — 18, counting two secretaries. That is expected to increase slightly in coming months, taking the core team behind Europe's main anti-crisis weapon to 25.

After already funding large parts of the bailouts for Ireland and Portugal, the EFSF will soon take over the emergency loans to Greece — some €27 billion ($37 billion) left over from the first rescue package with several tens of billions expected to come through a second loan program.

More importantly, the fund is now the number one institution charged with stopping the debt crisis from engulfing large economies like Italy and Spain, helping to stabilize wobbling banks across the continent and protect the future of the euro.

That role could turn it into a bond insurer or see it manipulate government bond prices like a central bank.

The fund's headquarters, in a nondescript office block on the outskirts of Luxembourg city, look a lot less spectacular than one may expect. Apart from the blue and yellow EFSF labels on the mail boxes, there is nothing to suggest that actions taken within the building could determine the fortunes of the 330 million citizens of the eurozone.

The fund was hastily set up in the summer of 2010, when the currency union's leaders realized that their initial €110 billion ($152 billion) bailout of Greece was not enough to stem market panic over high debt in several euro countries.

Because creating an international institution would have taken too much time, the EFSF was registered as a private company under Luxembourg law, taking over an empty suite of offices from the European Investment Bank.

More than a year later, the premises haven't changed much — dark blue carpet, gray hallways and papers piled high in offices. In expectation of the new staff and responsibilities, the EFSF recently took over another corner of the EIB's office space that still stands empty.

Presiding over the whole thing is Chief Executive Klaus Regling, a gray-haired EU veteran who helped set up the single currency in the 1990s and then unsuccessfully fought to protect the union's rules on government spending a decade later.

It was the limitations of those rules that allowed countries like Greece to run up massive debts and failed to counteract Ireland's property bubble and Portugal's pervasively low growth — the very problems Regling is now trying to solve.

"It was totally unpredictable how this would evolve," says Regling, as he thinks back to June 8, 2010, when he interviewed for, was offered and accepted the job at the helm of a yet-to-be-created institution within less than 24 hours. "I was actually worried that it may become too boring."

No such luck.

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