FRANKFURT, Germany After a turbulent 2011, the 17 countries that use the euro will be quickly confronted in the new year with major hurdles to solving their government debt crisis, just as the eurozone economy is expected to sink back into recession.
With government finances under pressure as growth wanes, the eurozone will find it even more difficult to shore up shaky banks and reduce the high borrowing costs that threaten Italy and Spain with financial ruin.
As early as the second full week of January, bond auctions in which Italy and Spain need to borrow big chunks of cash will start showing whether the eurozone finally is getting a grip on the 2-year-old crisis that has seen Greece, Ireland and Portugal bailed out.
If the auctions go well and borrowing costs ease, the crisis will ease, lending support for the EU strategy of getting governments to embark on often-savage austerity measures to reduce deficits, along with massive support for the banking system from the European Central Bank.
High rates, on the other hand, would feed fears of a government debt default that could cripple banks, sink the economy and, in the extreme case, destroy the 17-member currency union.
Key events early in the New Year:
Italy and Spain will seek to borrow heavily in the first quarter at affordable interest costs, starting the second week in January.
The slowing eurozone economy may slip into or already be in recession, lowering tax revenue and increasing government budget deficits.
Bailed-out Greece must agree with creditors on a debt write-down that will cut the value of their holdings by 50 percent in an effort to start putting the bankrupt country back on its feet.
The task is for the major players eurozone governments, the European Unions executive Commission and the European Central Bank to convince financial markets that troubled governments can pay their heavy debts and therefore deserve to borrow at affordable interest costs.
Default fears have driven up bond market interest rates and made it increasingly more expensive for indebted governments to borrow to pay off maturing bonds. That vicious cycle forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek bailout loans from the other eurozone governments and the International Monetary Fund.
A key stress point will be whether Italy can continue to raise money in the markets at affordable rates.
In the first quarter, it has to step up its borrowing to pay off 72 billion, equivalent to about $94 billion, in bond redemptions and interest payments. Spain, which is expected to sell up to 25 billion, or about $33 billion, in new debt, will start a heavy period of auctions Jan. 12, and Italy will begin Jan. 13.
Overall, Italy has more than 300 billion, or about $392 billion, in debt maturing in 2012.
If Italy manages to auction this debt successfully, then the debt crisis will take a step back from the cliff edge, said analyst Jane Foley at Rabobank. If it doesnt, it could go over the cliff edge. At the end of the day, whatever the nuances and hours of discussion that have gone on about the sovereign debt crisis, it boils down to whether a sovereign can sell its debt in the open market.
If Italy fails to borrow at affordable rates, the options are few and unattractive. The eurozones 500 billion ($653 billion) in bailout funds already partly committed to earlier bailouts would struggle to cover Italys financing needs, even if additional help can be found from the IMF. A bigger solution commonly guaranteed eurobonds faces German resistance and would take time to implement.
The European Central Bank could use its power to buy large amounts of Italian and Spanish bonds with newly created money but so far, it has refused out of concern that a central-bank bailout would remove the incentive for governments to control their spending.
Instead, the bank has focused on pushing credit to banks so they can keep lending to support the economy.
Still, its limited bond purchases have provided essential support to Spain and Italy by helping hold down borrowing costs. And its latest massive infusion of 489 billion ($639 billion) in cheap, long-term loans may help troubled governments borrow, as stronger banks may use some of the money to buy higher-yielding government bonds.
Italy pays an average of about 4.2 percent on its existing stock of 1.9 trillion in debt, but the crisis has pushed bond yields on the countrys benchmark 10-year bonds to more than 7 percent.
Bond auctions Wednesday and Thursday showed the government of new Prime Minister Mario Monti had made some progress in convincing lenders, as yields on 10-year bonds fell to 6.98 percent. Though thats painfully high, its down from last months equivalent 7.56 percent, which was the highest rate Italy has had to pay since the euro was launched in 1999.