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Eurozone crisis live: China tells Europe to ‘do its homework’

• Wen Jiabao: China could offer financial help…..
• Angela Merkel: euro has made Europe stronger
Groundhog Day in Greece as negotiations continue….
Athens talks hang on wages, pensions and the banks
German officials hope to do deals in Beijing
Today’s agenda
• Blogging now: Graeme Wearden

12.10pm: The euro has just dropped below the .31 mark as comments from Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads up the Eurogroup of finance ministers, hit the wires.

Juncker told German radio station Deutchslandfunk that the Private Sector Involvement talks in Greece are “ultra-difficult”. That’s not the word of a man who thinks a deal is close …

He was also critical of the progress made at Monday’s summit, saying the measures agreed were “largely insufficient.”

11.51am: Here’s the key quote from Wen Jiabao, from his meeting with Angela Merkel (via Reuters’ Beijing desk):

China is also considering increasing its participation in the solution of the European debt crisis through the channels of the EFSF and ESM.

The European Stability Mechanism is due to come into effect in July, superseding the European Financial Stability Fund (which has been financing Ireland, Greece and Portugal). As things stand, the ESM is pegged at €500bn – many key players (Christine Lagarde, Mario Monti …) have called for more resources, but Germany has been reluctant.

11.42am: Kevin Dunning of The Economist Intelligence Unit isn’t surprised that Wen Jiabao didn’t announce any new financial support for Europe.

He believes Angela Merkel will struggle to persuade China that there is ‘”no existential crisis” in Europe, just a debt and competitiveness crisis:

Although China certainly has huge foreign-currency reserves, it is likely to remain reserved about deploying them while the perception continues that the Europeans (who are considerably richer than the Chinese) are themselves not willing to put up the necessary funds to preserve their currency union.

China does already hold plenty of euro-denominated securities (around a quarter of its .2 trillion asset pile), making further eurozone debt less attractive. There’s an argument that Beijing will be much more interested in buying up actual physical assets in Europe.

11.21am: Chinese premier Wen Jiabao says it is “very important” to resolve the eurozone debt crisis, and hinted that China might provide financial support.

Speaking with Angela Merkel in Beijing, Wen said he backed Europe’s efforts to stabilise the euro. However he stopped short of announcing any new financial commitment – saying only that China was studying how it might help.

Wen also reiterated that Europe must help itself though its crisis, by cutting its debt load and introducing structural reforms.

Merkel also told journalists in Beijing that China had given her a message that Europe must “do its homework” on the crisis before getting help from elsewhere.

10.54am: Meanwhile, our correspondent in Athens, Helena Smith, says Greece’s political leaders have confirmed that wage cuts remain the biggest “stumbling block” to an agreement over the country’s next rescue package.

Speaking to Flash radio this morning Giorgos Karatzaferis who leads LAOS, one of the three parties backing prime minister Lucas Papademos’s interim government, highlighted what is at stake.

Even at the last minute our hope is that Greece will be saved from bankruptcy. Right now [negotiations are focusing] on the 13th and 14th wage.

That’s a reference to the bonuses that are granted to workers in the private sector. Karatzaferis claimed that the money was vital to keep the Greek economy moving:

We are trying to save them so that Greeks can go out and buy a shirt or small present at Easter and summer … but Poul Thomsen [IMF mission chief] has become very hard, he is negotiating very hard.

Karatzaferis argued (perhaps a little optimistically) that Greeks could boost their competitiveness by working just a little harder:

Even Uganda … Albania, Skopje [the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia] are more competitive than us. But what I have argued is that if Greeks work longer, say an hour more a day … we can make the country more competitive without having to lose everything.

Karatzaferis also blamed the tortuously slow progress of open warfare in the socialist party, Pasok. Since stepping aside to make way for Papademos in November, former PM George Papandreou has faced many calls to quit the party leadership.

There is speculation that Papandreou may even be ousted at a crucial Pasok parliamentary group meeting this afternoon. Watch this space!

10.42am: Louise Cooper of BGC also reckoned that the European Central Bank will be overwhelmed with bids for cheap loans in a couple of weeks.

The ECB is due to hold its next Long Term Refinancing Operation later this month. At December’s operation, European banks stunned the City by taking €489bn of low-cost, three-year loans (sparking the liquidity rally mentioned in the last post).

This time around, though, the chatter on the BGC trading desks is that banks could take €1.2tn.

Louise cites three reasons:
1) December’s operation clashed with banks balancing their books for the end of the year, so some were reluctant to get heavily involved
2) The ECB has relaxed its rules on what assets it will accept as collateral.
3) There’s no stigma in taking the money.

The fear, though, is that the ECB will actually panic the financial sector by handing out too many loans – making investors worry that the situation is even worse than they thought.

One thing’s clear, though, as Louise says:

More cheap loans only put off the inevitable.

10.22am: Louise Cooper of BGC Partners confirms that today’s successful Spanish bond auction (see 9.58am) is due to the €500bn of cheap three-year loans pumped into the European financial system by the ECB.

As she put it:

It’s a liquidity rally, everything is rallying.

She also pointed out that Spanish banks have probably bought most of the bonds sold this morning, under pressure from the Madrid government. Those bonds could soon find their way back onto the secondary market – or stashed with the European Central Bank as liquidity.

The problem with liquidity rallies, of course, is that they don’t do much to fix the underlying solvency problems faced by weaker eurozone countries. Spain’s biggest problem is its huge unemployment rate and slow-growing economy – PM Rajoy hopes to use this window of opportunity to push economic reforms in, and also to persuade Europe to give him more time (by easing his deficit reduction targets).

9.58am: Looks like it’s Groundhog Day in the bond markets too, where Spain just sold €4.5bn of debt at much lower costs than previously.

Investors bought three-year bonds at a yield of 2.8% (down from 3.38% paid just three weeks ago), while a five-year bond sold at a yield of 3.5% (from 5.5% in early January).

It’s a familiar tale – auctions have been going well since the European Central Bank offered almost €500bn in cheap loans in late December.

Just getting some City reaction now… #ringring.

9.37am: UK construction data is out, and it shows that the sector kept growing in January – but at a slower pace. Markit’s monthly survey of managers at building firms came in at 51.4 – its weakest result in four months, closer to the 50-point mark that marks stagnation.

Markit said the data should raise hopes that Britain can avoid a second quarter of negative growth. Yesterday, though, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reckoned a second recession was likely.

UPDATE: Andrew Duncan of programme management and construction consultancy Turner & Townsend says the construction data is unimpressive:

January is traditionally is an upbeat month for the construction sector – as companies looking to expand begin putting wheels in motion….such a modest rise in construction output looks more than a little disappointing.

9.26am: Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest bank, has plunged into the red after running up heavy losses on its investment banking arm.

The eurozone crisis hit Deutsche Bank hard — it took a writedown on its Greek government bonds, and reported weak trading activity as clients delayed deals and kept out of the financial markets.

Deutsche posted a pretax loss of €351m for the last quarter. Dirk Becker, analyst at stock broker Kepler, said the results were a “catastrophe.”

Chief executive officer Josef Ackermann is briefing the media now. He attempted to calm nerves in Germany by saying Deutsche had increased its domestic lending by around 7% since the crisis began, but also warned of a threat of “deep recession” in the eurozone’s weaker states.

9.00am: A spokesman for the Greek government said this morning that negotiations with its lenders are now focused on three issues – wages, pensions and bank recapitalision.

Pantelis Kapsis told Greek MEGA television that there are just a few “sticking points” to be cleared up before the Private Sector Involvement is cleared up.

Kapsis said:

On the one side, there is pressure to restore the economy’s competitiveness fast. We are saying that there is clearly an issue of competitiveness.

On the other hand, there is also the question of recession which is very important for Greece.

The wage question focuses on Greece’s minimum salary of €750 per month, which the IMF argue is too high. Union officials oppose the suggestion, saying a cut would drive more people into poverty and further damage consumer spending (retail sales are already sliding).

8.29am: Angela Merkel’s visit to Beijing isn’t just about diplomacy, it’s also about business.

The German chancellor is expected to meet with Chinese investors during her visit to Beijing, and officials are hoping that she might persuade them to invest in Europe.

German news magazine Spiegel reports:

A senior government representative stressed in Berlin on Tuesday that “Chinese investments are expressly welcome. They will be sought, used and appreciated” — both in Germany and in the rest of the eurozone.

It may not be an easy sell. Three months ago, Klaus Regling of the EFSF toured the Far East looking for support, and came away empty handed.

8.17am: Angela Merkel began her visit to Beijing today by insisting that the single currency had made Europe stronger.

In a speech to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the German chancellor declared:

The euro has made Europe stronger.

She adding that EU members were “deeply” committed to the fiscal compact agreed at Monday’s summit in Brussels, saying budget limits would prevent countries overspending in the future.

It will be interesting to see how Chinese media cover the visit, as Beijing officials have sometimes appeared unsympathetic to Europe.

As Jin Liqun, who chairs China’s 0 billion sovereign wealth fund, stated last November: “[Europe's] labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than hardworking. The incentive system, is totally out of whack…”

7.55am: Appropriately enough, today is Groundhog Day in America — the day when (folk wisdom states) the appearance of a small rodent out of its burrow will show whether sunny or cloudy weather is due.

Thanks to Hollywood, GroundHog Day is also associated with living the same events over and over (and over) again. That pretty much sums up the eurozone crisis in recent days, as the Greek debt restructuring talks have dragged on – punctuated by one side or the other claiming that a deal was close.

As Michael Hewson of CMC Markets put it this morning:

Given that it’s Groundhog Day today its particularly apt that Greece continues to be the centre of continued speculation about what’s happening with respect to the debt talks and the latest bailout.

Even so markets are now so bored with it, any comments by EU officials are now being dismissed with a perfunctory shrug and an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude.

The latest official comment came from the Institute of International Finance (representing Greek bond holders) last night. It said that “constructive discussions” were continuing, and was hopeful of agreeing a deal “in the days ahead”….

Mike van Dulken, City trader at Accendo Markets, is also running low on patience, wondering which weekend the negotiators are aiming to finish by.

Oh look, Thursday & STILL no Greek deal. “Just round corner”, “hours away”, they said. I guess “before w/e” still valid but, which w/e?

— Mike van Dulken (@Accendo_Mike) February 2, 2012

7.54am: Here’s today’s agenda, including some economic UK and European economic data:

• UK construction PMI data for January – 9.30am GMT
ª Eurozone producer price index for December – 10am GMT / 11am CET
ª US weekly jobless data – 1.30pm GMT / 8.30am EST
• Ben Bernanke testifies before the House Budget panel – 3pm GMT / 10am EST

Bond auctions:
• France to sell €6.5bn-€8bn of long-term debt
• Spain to sell €3.5bn-€4.5bn of various bonds

+ Angela Merkel in China until Friday

7.45am: Good morning, and welcome to our rolling coverage of the eurozone financial crisis.

On the menu today: Angela Merkel is visiting China for top-level meetings with premier Wen Jiabao and president Hu Jintao. Europe’s fiscal plans will be discussed, along with China’s policy on the yuan.

Merkel’s visit will be closely watched for signs that China might be prepared to offer support to help Europe through the debt crisis, and for her own views on the situation.

Elsewhere, the protracted negotiations between Greece and her creditors are continuing. Those involved still claim that an agreement could be close, but City analysts are openly sceptical about these pronouncements.

In the bond markets, Spain and France will auction sovereign debt this morning.

And Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke is due to appear on Capitol Hill to answer questions from the House Budget Committee. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds