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Drenched in debt

Money | Spain and Greece try to cope with out-of-control government budgets

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

In debt-laden Spain and Greece, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest government austerity measures.

In Spain, which has Europe's highest unemployment rate at 21 percent, the protests culminated in historic election losses for the nation's ruling Socialist Party, which lost 13 of 17 regional elections to the center-right Popular Party. The election o utcome is likely to further stymie Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's attempts to implement a deficit-reduction plan.

Outside the Greek parliament building in Athens, thousands protested public-sector pay cuts and pension reductions by chanting "Thieves! Thieves!" according to a Reuters news service report. Attempting to improve the revenue side of the Greek government's debt-drenched balance sheet, Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou launched a privatization plan that calls for selling $70 billion worth of government assets, including stakes in TT Hellenic Postbank and telecom company OTE. The government is also expected to sell some of its gambling holdings. (Greece owns 34 percent of OPAP, Europe's largest gambling operation.)

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Meanwhile, Greece saw its credit rating downgraded three notches by the credit-rating company Fitch Ratings, days after the European Commission estimated that the Greek national debt would rise to a staggering 166.1 percent of GDP next year.

As Greece's financial situation deteriorated, Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking at a meeting of eurozone finance ministers, suggested that Greece may need a "soft restructuring" of its debt to limit losses to private bondholders, according to a report in the Financial Times. But in an interview with the business daily Handelsblatt, German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble argued that restructuring could further endanger Greek solvency.

A year ago, Greece received a $175 billion bailout package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to help the nation avoid default.

Coffee spikes

Planning to buy a bag of beans at Starbucks? Expect to pay 17 percent more as of next month. The Seattle-based coffee company is sharply bumping up the price of its bagged beans in response to near-record wholesale prices. "We held off as long as we could," a company spokesman said. Earlier, Starbucks hiked prices 12 percent on its bagged coffee sold through grocery stores.

Prices for other brands are going up, too. J.M. Smucker announced an across-the-board 11 percent increase for its Folgers, Millstone, and Dunkin' Donuts brands. That follows a 9 percent increase for those brands earlier this year. Kraft Foods has raised prices for its Maxwell House brand three times in the past nine months-a total increase of 43 percent.

IntercontinentalExchange contract prices for Arabica beans have doubled since a year ago because of rising demand from emerging markets and a shortage of supply related to lower crop yields. Higher transportation costs are also a factor.

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