IMF chief warns euro's survival at stake if swift action not taken


THE INTERNATIONAL Monetary Fund has warned that the viability of the euro is under threat and called on governments and the European Central Bank to take radical new action to assert control over the debacle.

In an abrupt intervention late last night after six hours of talks with euro zone finance ministers, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde said the emergency was at a critical stage and urged immediate steps to stabilise the situation.

The development came as the rating agency Moody’s downgraded the credit standing of 15 of the world’s biggest banks, among them Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

Moody’s said the move reflected shrinking prospects of the banks’ long-term profits and growth.

It came amid turmoil on markets, as US stocks suffered their worst day in three weeks and new research showed Germany’s private sector shrinking for the second successive month running as manufacturing activity hit a three-year low.

Ms Lagarde said euro zone governments should allow the direct recapitalisation of banks by Europe’s bailout funds, a measure Germany rejected only two weeks ago when Spain sought emergency aid for its banks.

She also said the ECB had room to cut interest cuts and should, if necessary, restart its sovereign bond buying campaign or initiate a new scheme to flood the banking system with ultra-cheap loans.

Previous initiatives of this kind by the ECB have proved highly contentious in its top echelon. The bank is reluctant to go down this road again and it has insisted in recent weeks that it now falls to governments to take new steps to tackle the crisis.

However, Ms Lagarde said the ECB should contemplate going further than before and introduce some form of quantitative easing – ie printing money – if that was necessary to calm the turmoil in restive markets.

Such moves are anathema to the ECB, which holds the view that European law forbids the printing of money to stimulate the economy.

Ms Lagarde said immediate steps in this direction should complement longer-term measures to establish a banking union and greater fiscal integration. She also called for more risk-sharing in the euro zone, an implicit reference to debt mutualisation. This too is rejected by Germany.

“We are clearly seeing additional tension and acute stress applying to both banks and sovereigns in the euro area,” Ms Lagarde told reporters in Luxembourg.

“With that in mind the IMF believes that a determined and forceful move towards a complete European monetary union should be reaffirmed to restore faith in the system because as we see it at the moment the viability of the European monetary system is questioned.”

Economics commissioner Olli Rehn said that he agreed “by and large” with the IMF assessment and euro group chief Jean-Claude Juncker said he was “broadly in agreement”.

Ms Lagarde’s remarks came as finance ministers took further steps to prepare the bailout of Spain’s banks. The ministers agreed in principle to provide up to €100 billion but, led by Germany, they rejected Spain’s demand for direct aid.