By DAVID MCHUGH and SARAH DiLORENZO
FRANKFURT, Germany — On the eve of Greek elections, Europe’s central bankers are hoping to avert a financial panic by signaling their readiness to support banks.
At the same time, the head of the European Central Bank is calling on nations to pursue steps that could eventually boost economic growth, such as easing corporate regulations.
For now, the stresses gripping Europe from its debt crisis are tightening. Governments are struggling to borrow. Banks are wary of lending to each other and their customers. And nervous depositors are pulling money from Greek and Spanish banks.
As European officials head for a Group of 20 summit in Mexico, where they’ll face pressure to defuse the crisis, central bankers say it’s up to government leaders to find a solution.
Mario Draghi, head of the ECB, said Friday that the central bank would continue to support solvent banks if the election results Sunday point to Greece’s exit from the euro currency union and ignite panic in financial markets.
But what the eurozone needs most, Draghi said, is a tighter fiscal and political union to strengthen individual countries’ banking systems.
Draghi and the central bank favor stronger action by political leaders to boost confidence and ease pressure on the ECB to take more emergency steps. Such steps might include further low-cost loans to banks or direct purchases of government bonds.
The ECB chief said he and other European Union officials are drafting proposals to revamp the eurozone and will address them at a summit of EU leaders late this month. Those proposals could include more centralized supervision of banks and individual countries’ spending; action to stimulate growth; and some system of common borrowing that might prevent government defaults.
Still, any such program could take years to implement and would likely raise political objections.
In the meantime, Draghi said the ECB would keep supporting the banking system by providing credit, when necessary, to solvent banks.
But he argued that governments must also act. He called on them to take steps to boost growth by easing or dismantling business regulations. Such action could make it easier for companies to hire and fire and to cut through bureaucratic obstacles to starting businesses.
The surprise announcement late Thursday that the Bank of England will offer British banks up to 140 billion pounds ($217 billion) in loans has raised the possibility that further turbulence in Greece could make it harder for banks to get money to fund their operations.
Major banks take out overnight loans from other banks to pay day-to-day bills. If this lending freezes up, some banks won’t be able to operate. That problem triggered Lehman Brothers’ collapse in 2008, which, in turn, escalated panic and choked off interbank lending. Central banks had to intervene to give banks short-term loans.
European banks faced a similar scare last fall. The ECB resolved the problem by providing low-cost long-term loans. But Europe’s banks have never really gotten back to normal, said Nicolas Veron, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based economic think tank Bruegel.
“There is no functioning interbank market,” Veron said. Instead, there’s a “substitution of the ECB for the interbank markets,” which Vernon said isn’t a permanent solution.
Leaders of the 17 countries in the eurozone must produce a plan to assess banks’ health and decide how to close the weakest ones, Veron said.
Here’s a look at the situations in individual countries:
The U.K. government and Bank of England unveiled emergency measures late Thursday to help banks and to boost lending to businesses and families. Britain isn’t in the eurozone. But the measures are intended to shield its economy from further damage from the eurozone’s crisis.
One program will offer British banks cheap multiyear loans — provided they pass on the money as loans to households and companies. The central bank will also inject about 5 billion pounds (US$7.8 billion) a month into Britain’s financial system.
Bank of England Governor Mervyn King warned of a “black cloud of uncertainty hanging over not only the euro area but our economy too, and indeed the world economy as a whole.”
The lending program has so far met with a lukewarm response from analysts and businesses.
“With so many uncertainties about the U.K., European and global economies, it is very debatable whether entrepreneurs will be rushing to load up with new debt to invest in new projects,” said Mark Ostwald, an analyst at Monument Securities.
This weekend’s national elections have become the latest focal point in Europe’s crisis. The left-wing Syriza party wants to abandon Greece’s international bailout terms. If that happened, Greece could be cut off from the bailout loans it needs and could face bankruptcy and leave the euro.
Jeffrey Bergstrand, a professor of international finance at the University of Notre Dame, said that if the Greek elections end with uncertainty about the results, the ensuing chaos could require intervention to stabilize markets and banks across Europe.
In a sign of concern, French retail giant Carrefour SA said Friday that it’s selling its stake in Carrefour Marinopoulos, its Greek supermarket joint venture, because of the economic uncertainty.
Spain’s public debt load has doubled since 2008, the country’s central bank said Friday. The Bank of Spain said that as of the end of the first quarter, total government debt — central, regional and local governments — stood at 72 percent of gross domestic product. That’s up from 65 percent in the same quarter last year.
The government has said the debt load will hit 80 percent by year’s end. Economists expect it to rise further from its acceptance of a (euro) 100 billion ($125 billion) loan to prop up its banks. Because the government will be responsible for repaying the banks’ bailout, the loan will compound its public debt.
The International Monetary Fund warned that Spain’s budget deficit was likely to be larger than estimated. It implored the government to take bolder steps to reduce its debt. These steps could include raising more tax revenue and cutting spending.
Italy has been swept up in the anxiety about Spain’s finances. Investors have demanded high interest rates on bonds for fear that Italy might soon need financial aid. The government is saddled with a huge debt load — up to 120 per cent of its GDP. Investors fear it might be unable to maintain that level if its economy deteriorates further.
On Friday, Italy’s government unveiled measures worth (euro) 80 billion ($100 billion) to try to spur growth and lower its debt. They include selling government property, issuing bonds for infrastructure projects and reducing staff at the Cabinet and in the Treasury Ministry.
The government plans to raise (euro) 10 billion by selling financial and oversight companies controlled by the Treasury and using the money to reduce public debt.
Chancellor Angela Merkel told a group of owners of family-run businesses that she would resist any pressure at the Group of 20 summit to quickly adopt steps such as commonly issued bonds or continent-wide bank deposit insurance.
“Germany will not be convinced by all the quick solutions like eurobonds, stability funds, European deposit insurance funds,” Merkel said at a conference.
“I argue for addressing the roots and not fighting symptoms,” she said.
DiLorenzo contributed from Brussels. Associated Press writers Bob Barr in London, Elaine Ganley in Paris, Daniel Wools in Madrid, Christopher S. Rugaber in Washington, Colleen Barry in Italy and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.