Euro zone looks to Washington

So the debt crisis is back (did it ever really go away?) but it’s not yet anything like as acute as it was late last year.

Spain is coming under real market pressure, and dragging Italy with it to an extent, but there are good reasons to think it won’t fall over; banks well funded for now and the government’s savvy move to take advantage of benign early year conditions to shift almost half its 2012 debt issuance in three months.

Madrid faces another key test with a Thursday bond auction. Two weeks ago, it suffered its first wobbly debt sale for some months. The turning point is pretty clear – Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s decision to rip up Spain’s agreed deficit target for 2012 without consulting his partners. Since then, Spanish borrowing costs have soared though given the amount of debt Madrid has already shifted, that might not be as damaging as it was.

Aside from the auction, Rajoy is holding talks with his powerful regional leaders about where the axe should fall on health and education spending. The consensus so far is that having bitten this bullet, he is deadly serious about cutting debt and reforming the economy. Any backsliding in the face of regional recalcitrance could be taken very badly by the markets.

Aside from Spain, everything builds to the big IMF meeting in Washington at the back end of the week, which hopes to make some headway on boosting the Fund’s crisis-fighting resources.

An eerie euro zone calm

I don’t want to be the idiot who asked “is it all over?” … but is it all over?

Almost certainly not, is the answer. Greece is shored up for now but Portugal will probably need to follow it in seeking a second bailout and Spain, heading back into recession, will have to make deep, deep cuts over the next two years to meet EU deficit targets. Greek and French elections could easily upset the apple cart, the former producing a fractured government with less will to tread the austerity path, the latter a new president who wants to renegotiate the bloc’s new fiscal rules (though neither are guaranteed).

In Italy, a lot of faith continues to be placed in Monti but the proof of his ability to deliver the structural reforms needed to regalvanise the economy has yet to be seen. On that front, the Italian government is talking with trade unions during the week on radical reform of labour market rules, with the aim of clinching a deal next week.