German EFSF vote sets stage for next steps

German lawmakers approved an expansion of the euro-area rescue fund?s firepower, freeing the way for European officials to focus on what next steps may be needed to stem the debt crisis.

The lower house of parliament passed the measure with 523 votes in favor and 85 against, granting the fund powers to buy bonds in secondary markets, enable bank recapitalizations and offer precautionary credit lines. It raises Germany?s guarantees to 211 billion euros ($287 billion) from 123 billion euros. The main opposition Social Democrats and Greens said before today?s session in Berlin that they?d vote with Chancellor Angela Merkel?s government, assuring passage.

The bill?s passage by Europe?s biggest economy allows euro- area officials to weigh further measures to bolster Greece and stem investor concern that helped end the biggest three-day rally in 16 months for European stocks. Options include seeking further writedowns on Greek sovereign bonds, adding yet more firepower to the rescue fund and a plan to protect banks.

Beefing up the fund bolsters defenses against the crisis, setting the stage for German policy makers to focus on Greece?s second bailout, said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Joh. Berenberg Gossler bringing forward the start of its permanent successor by a year or more; reopening the second Greek rescue agreed in July to increase the financial industry?s contribution; and a safety net for Europe?s banks if default becomes inevitable.

Merkel, head of Europe?s largest economy and the biggest country contributor to bailouts for Greece, Ireland and Portugal, spent weeks cajoling dissenters in her coalition to back the July 21 accord by euro-area leaders to expand the fund.

Coalition Dissenters

Provisions inserted into the bill to satisfy Germany?s constitutional court and potential rebels will allow lawmakers to vote on all new aid requests from the 440 billion-euro fund. Leaders of the Free Democratic Party, Merkel?s junior coalition ally that has flirted with an anti-bailout stance, said the bill would pass on the strength of the coalition?s majority.

Merkel?s coalition has 330 seats in the 620-member lower house. With a simple majority of 311 required to pass the bill, she can afford 19 dissenters before depending on opposition votes to win approval. The full breakdown of the vote will be announced later today.

Expanding the fund requires approval in all 17 euro countries. Nine have authorized the changes, including France, Italy, Spain and Finland, where parliament voted yesterday. Estonia also votes today and Austria holds its ballot tomorrow, when Germany?s upper house of parliament will debate the fund.

Obama?s Call

Nearly two years into the debt crisis centered on Greece, the U.S. is urging European governments to go further and show more urgency. Europeans haven?t responded ?as effectively as they needed to,? President Barack Obama said during a roundtable discussion at the White House yesterday.

Europeans ?are aware of our responsibility,? German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said on Deutschlandfunk radio today. ?We have to take as many precautions as we can. We must ensure that Europe doesn?t become the starting point of a new, big financial and economic crisis in the world.?

If the rescue fund must be enhanced further, it will be done in the ?most efficient way,? Schaeuble said on Sept. 27. He said that he had also asked all 17 euro states to come up with ?backstop plans? to shield banks if the crisis worsens. The plans are to be outlined at the next euro-area finance ministers? meeting on Oct. 3, when they are due to decide whether to release the next aid payment for Greece.

Greece?s lack of competitiveness means ?insolvency on its own won?t solve the root problem,? Frank Schaeffler, an FDP lawmaker who said he planned to vote against the bill, said in an interview yesterday. He called for Greece to leave the euro region because rescue packages ?won?t work.?

?I don?t believe the domino effect we hear about will happen,? he said. ?Investors will learn the bitter lesson that their losses can?t be socialized by the taxpayer.?

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