BERLIN/MADRID (Reuters) - EU paymaster Germany said on Friday that Spain does not need a European bailout, dousing financial market expectations that Madrid will gain early relief from European Central Bank bond-buying.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble’s comment, contrasting with pressure from France for Madrid to avail itself of ECB help, seemed aimed at deterring Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy from applying for assistance soon.
“Spain needs no program because it is doing the right thing and will be successful,” Schaeuble told the Foreign Press Association in Berlin, saying he was in full agreement with the Spanish government.
“What Spain needs is the confidence of the financial markets and that is where Spain has real problems,” he added.
In Madrid, Spain’s deputy prime minister denied a Reuters report that the government is considering freezing pensions as it races to cut spending and meet likely conditions for any rescue package.
“The prime minister has said publicly that the first thing he did when taking power was bring pensions up to date and that should be respected ... in his exact words, it would be the last thing he would touch,” Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told reporters.
Reuters also quoted sources with knowledge of the matter as saying Spain was considering speeding up the raising of the retirement age to 67 from 65.
The government is committed to a 1 percent increase in pensions and a 3 percent regular inflation catch-up by the end of the year. Suspending inflation indexation might enable Rajoy to argue he had not “touched” pensions while saving money in real terms.
Spain’s borrowing costs have begun to creep up again as government officials and euro zone partners have sent confusing signals over whether Madrid would apply for and receive a precautionary credit line.
The country faces a 27.5 billion euro debt redemption hump in late October, but EU officials said they did not expect Rajoy to submit an application before regional elections in his home region of Galicia on October 21 -- too late to receive ECB backing by that deadline.
The ECB has conditioned its willingness to buy shorter-term bonds in the secondary market on vulnerable countries applying for assistance, negotiating a memorandum of understanding and accepting strict conditionality and international supervision.
Italy may soon come into the frame too.
Late on Thursday, it produced some dismal forecasts, predicting the economy would shrink this year by 2.4 percent, twice as much as the previous projection of a 1.2 percent drop, made in April. It also hiked its forecast for the 2012 budget deficit to 2.6 percent from 1.7 percent.
The latest turn of events demonstrates that the period of calm the ECB has bought the euro zone by promising to intervene to lower borrowing costs may be short-lived unless it can back up its words with actions.
Credit ratings agency Moody‘s, which has said it would welcome a Spanish application for assistance, is due to conclude by the end of the month a review of whether to downgrade Spanish sovereign debt to junk status.
Schaeuble said Spain had made clear it would not need the full 100 billion euros which euro zone countries have already agreed to lend it to recapitalize ailing banks hit by the collapse of a real estate bubble and a deep recession.
The European Commission said on Thursday that any money left over could not be diverted for other purposes.
Rajoy is keen to avoid the political stigma of a sovereign bailout even though Madrid would not need to be taken off the international credit markets like Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Officials who attended a euro zone finance ministers meeting in Cyprus last weekend said Schaeuble had told colleagues it would be hard to persuade the German parliament to approve another rescue program for Spain so soon after the bank aid.
Madrid is due to approve a tough 2013 budget next week, set out a timetable for implementing economic reforms announced in July and publish the results of a detailed audit of Spanish banks’ recapitalization needs.
Schaeuble also said nobody in the euro zone wanted Greece to leave the currency bloc but Athens had to demonstrate it was sticking to the terms of a second international rescue package.
There was “no guarantee that they can keep on convincing people in the other countries” that it is in their own interests to keep Greece in the euro zone, he said.
EU officials and sources in Germany said a crucial report by Greece’s international lenders on whether its debt is manageable was likely to be delayed until after November 6, to avoid an economic shock that could hurt U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election.
That would leave Greece perilously short of cash but in Athens, a finance ministry official said Greece had been assured that the so-called troika report would not be delayed past the election.
PORTUGAL WILL “LISTEN”
After a week of mass demonstrations against planned tax increases imposed to meet targets set in Portugal’s bailout program, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho promised to “listen to the nation”, suggesting he could soften the measures.
“We are not deaf to the difficulties faced by the country,” Passos Coelho told parliament of nationwide protests against a planned rise in social security contributions.
Portugal has entered its worst recession since the 1970s as it labors under sweeping tax rises and spending cuts, with the centre-right government’s popularly falling to an all-time low after it announced the tax changes.
Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels, Noah Barkin in Berlin, Axel Bugge in Lisbon and Dina Kyriakidou in Athens; Writing by Paul Taylor, editing by Mike Peacock.