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New year unfolds with rapid sequence of hurdles for battered eurozone

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 often savage 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, in the extreme case, destroy the 17-member currency union.

Key events on the horizon early in the new year:

*Italy and Spain will seek to borrow heavily in the first quarter at affordable interest costs, starting the second week in 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.

Fears of default have driven up bond market interest rates and made it more and more expensive for indebted governments to borrow to pay off maturing bonds. That vicious cycle forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek bailout loans from the other eurozone governments and the International Monetary Fund.

Bond auctions Wednesday and Thursday showed that the government of new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti had made progress in convincing lenders, as yields on 10-year bonds fell to 6.98 percent. Though that's painfully high, it's down from last month's equivalent 7.56 percent, which was the highest rate Italy has had to pay since the euro was launched in 1999. Yields fell further on shorter-term debt.

Monti's big challenge will be to push Italian legislators to make far-ranging reforms to improve the country's growth performance and keep spending under control.

"We absolutely don't consider the market turbulence to be over," he said Thursday.

Italy's and Spain's battles will be even harder if the debt troubles pull the whole eurozone into a recession. Economists at Ernst & Young foresee a mild recession in the first part of the year and only 0.1 percent growth for the year as a whole, with unemployment at 10 percent for several years.

That will make it harder for governments to persuade voters to accept more cutbacks in spending, pensions and government wages while raising taxes.

It's not clear how long voters in Greece, which will have its fourth straight year of recession next year, will tolerate continuous austerity. Yet the cutbacks are the price of getting the bailout loans that have kept Greece from default.

Meanwhile, Greece is striving to get creditors to agree to write down some debt and avoid larger losses in case of a default that is not agreed ahead of time. A $18.8 billion chunk of debt comes due in March.