Has Portugal's debt default clock begun to tick?

Fri Jan 20, 2012 9:13am EST
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By Axel Bugge

LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal clinched a deal on ambitious labor market reforms this week and carried out its biggest debt sale since seeking a 78-billion-euro bailout, but the challenges for the second-most risky country in the euro zone may be shifting up a gear.

Undermining the glow of Lisbon's achievements is the rapidly rising market concern that Portugal is the next potential candidate to default in the euro zone after Greece -- a point that is fast becoming clear as Athens approaches the end of its debt restructuring talks.

"Portugal is obviously the next in the line of fire," said Michael Cirami, a portfolio manager at U.S. investment managers Eaton Vance. "Portugal is unlikely to go unnoticed whether they strike a deal or not (on Greek debt restructuring)."

The concerns were clearly borne out this week as Portugal's bond yields rose virtually without interruption, to all-time highs, despite the issuance of 2.5 billion euros of short-term treasury bills on Wednesday at slightly lower yields.

The country's 10-year yields rose to almost 15 percent on Thursday and hovered around 14.80 percent on Friday. Five-year credit default swap prices implied the market was pricing in a 66.8 percent chance of a Portuguese default.

The sharp rise in bond yields was partially triggered by Standard & Poor's downgrades of European countries last week, which left Portugal as the second euro zone country to be rated "junk" by all the main rating agencies, along with Greece.

"Portugal was the only country really rattled by the downgrade because it is seen as a much more complicated case," said Gilles Moec, senior European economist at Deutsche Bank. "It combines the same high level of private sector overindebtedness as Spain, high public sector debt similar to Italy, plus the economic recession."

The key problem for Portugal, which was the third euro zone country to seek a bailout after Greece and Ireland, is whether it has enough time to restructure its economy to grow as it enacts harsh austerity and faces the worst recession in decades.   Continued...