FRANKFURT, Germany - After a turbulent 2011, the 17 countries that use the euro will be quickly confronted in the new year with major hurdles to solving their government debt crisis, just as the eurozone economy is expected to sink back into recession.
With government finances under pressure as growth wanes, the eurozone will find it even more difficult to shore up shaky banks and reduce the high borrowing costs that threaten Italy and Spain with financial ruin.
As early as the second full week of January, bond auctions in which Italy and Spain need to borrow big chunks of cash will start showing whether the eurozone is finally getting a grip on the 2-year-old crisis that has seen Greece, Ireland and Portugal bailed out.
If the auctions go well and borrowing costs ease, the crisis will ease, lending support for the EU strategy of getting governments to embark on austerity measures to reduce deficits, along with massive support for the banking system from the European Central Bank.
High rates, on the other hand, would feed fears of a government debt default that could cripple banks, sink the economy and, perhaps, destroy the 17-member currency union.
Key events early in 2012:
Italy and Spain will seek to borrow heavily in the first quarter at affordable interest costs, starting in mid-January.
The slowing eurozone economy may slip into or already be in recession, lowering tax revenue and increasing government budget deficits.
Bailed-out Greece must agree with creditors on a debt write-down that will cut the value of their holdings by 50 percent in an effort to start putting the bankrupt country back on its feet.
The task is for the major players -- eurozone governments, the European Union's executive Commission and the European Central Bank -- to convince financial markets that troubled governments can pay their heavy debts and therefore deserve to borrow at affordable interest costs.
A key stress point will be whether Italy can continue to raise money in the markets at affordable rates.
"If Italy manages to auction this debt successfully, then the debt crisis will take a step back from the cliff edge," said analyst Jane Foley at Rabobank. "At the end of the day . . . it boils down to whether a sovereign can sell its debt in the open market."