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After a brief respite following the announcement last week of a nearly $1 trillion bailout plan for Europe, fear in the financial markets is building again, this time over worries that the Continent’s biggest banks face strains that will hobble European economies.

In a sign of the depth of the anxiety, the euro fell Friday to its lowest level since the depth of the financial crisis, as investors abandoned the currency as well as stocks in favor of gold and other assets seen as offering more safety. In trading early Monday morning, the euro declined again, managing at one time to reach a four-year low relative to the dollar.

For Europe’s banks, the problems are twofold. Short-term borrowing costs are rising, which could lead institutions to cut back on new loans and call in old ones, crimping economic growth. At the same time, seemingly safe institutions in more solid economies like France and Germany hold vast amounts of bonds from their more shaky neighbors, like Spain, Portugal and Greece.

Investors fear that with many governments groaning under the weight of huge deficits, the debt of weaker nations that use the euro currency will have to be restructured, deeply lowering the value of their bonds. That would hit European financial institutions hard, and may ricochet through the global banking system. […]

fter borrowing trillions to stimulate their economies and ease credit concerns during the last wave of fear in late 2008 and early 2009, governments cannot borrow trillions more without risking higher inflation and shoving aside other borrowers like individuals and companies. Short-term interest rates, already near zero in the United States, cannot be lowered any further. And vital steps like raising taxes or cutting spending increases could snuff out the beginnings of a recovery in northern Europe and worsen the pain in recession-battered economies like Spain, where unemployment recently passed 20 percent.

With the exception of wartime, “the public finances in the majority of advanced industrial countries are in a worse state today than at any time since the industrial revolution,” Willem Buiter, Citigroup’s top economist, wrote in a recent report.

“Restoring fiscal balance will be a drag on growth for years to come.”

Source: The New York Times

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