Greek crisis to dominate ECB meeting in Lisbon: analysts
European Central Bank governors travel this week to Lisbon for a monthly meeting set to be dominated by the Greek crisis and fears it could spread to other countries wrestling with high deficits.
The choice of Lisbon for the ECB meeting was made more than a year ago, months before the Greek crisis erupted.
But Portugal now finds itself on the front line too: markets have targeted it as potentially the next eurozone country to face problems financing its debt.
Considerations of ECB interest rates, still at a record low of 1.0 per cent, and even the unwinding of exceptional monetary measures have been overtaken by developments in the eurozone's worst crisis ever.
"Comments on monetary policy as well as the economic outlook will likely be of minor interest," UniCredit analyst Nikolaus Keis commented.
By the time the bank's governing council meets on Thursday, Athens is likely to have reached agreement with the
European Union and International Monetary Fund on a rescue plan worth up to 135 billion euros (180 billion dollars).
The ECB's role in a bail-out might mean a painful rethink of its rules, if for example it had to water down criteria again to ensure Greek debt remained eligible as collateral for loans despite having been downgraded to junk status.
"In fact, the ECB is now being asked to consider substantial purchases of government bonds as a last resort in case contagion intensifies," UniCredit's chief economist Marco Annunziata said.
He referred to fears that Portugal and Spain could be subjected to financial market pressure too, and indirect purchases of low-grade sovereign bonds would raise delicate questions about the quality of the central bank's assets.
The Portuguese and Spanish deficits are also well above eurozone limits, and following downgrades of their sovereign debt ratings, the interest they must pay to borrow money on private capital markets shot up last week.
Greece's deficit is estimated at 13.6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), compared with a theoretical eurozone limit of 3.0 per cent, and Athens is also being buried under some 300 billion euros in debt.
"With contagion rocking Portugal and Ireland and tremors felt also in Spain and Italy, investors now fear we might be heading towards a systemic crisis that could engulf the eurozone's sovereign bond markets and its financial system," Annunziata said.
Lisbon has vowed to cut its deficit from 9.4 per cent of GDP, but there is now "no guarantee that Portugal will not face serious liquidity problems in the months to come," Commerzbank economist Ralph Solveen warned.
The general economic picture for the 16-nation eurozone is mixed meanwhile: while business and household confidence is at a two-year high, unemployment is at 10 per cent, an all-time peak since the euro's launch in 1999.
Inflation has crept up to 1.5 per cent, the highest level since December 2008, but remains below the ECB target of just under 2.0 per cent.
Annunziata concluded that "the ECB is trapped" because only eurozone governments can reduce deficits and debt.
The central bank might even be "asked to inflate the debt problem away - its own version of hell," he added.
ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet pressed eurozone members Thursday to make a "leap forward in policy surveillance and policy adjustment" and to respect fiscal rules that serve as a foundation for the single currency.