Europe's "Big 4" Confer on Credit Crunch Response

Five months on, finance ministers from Europe's four largest economies headed to Paris on Thursday to discuss an international response to the credit crunch that struck last August and continues to plague the global economy.

Ministers from Germany, Britain, Italy and France, will also take stock of global economic prospects, above all mounting worry about the health of the U.S. economy, ahead of a meeting of the four countries' leaders in London on Jan. 29, French officials said.

The main goal of the Paris talks, which also precede a meeting of the G7 industrial powers in Tokyo on Feb. 9, is to revive deliberations on policy coordination in response to the trouble in financial markets, with a focus on cooperation between supervisory bodies and changing the much-criticized role of credit rating agencies.

Governments are keen to be seen to be doing something but do not see eye-to-eye when it comes to concrete action on key issues, such as how far national agencies which supervise banks and markets should work together and apply the same rules.

"The financial market crisis is significant and requires rapid action," British finance minister Alistair Darling said in newspaper interviews ahead of Thursday's talks that are scheduled to last two hours and end with a news conference around 4pm London time.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has asked leaders of the same countries to a summit on the matter in London on Jan. 29.

"Through their role in Europe and the G7, the four countries share the objective of doing everything possible at government level and, separately, by the central banks, to find a solution to the crisis on financial markets and prevent future crises," Darling said.

In December, Britain rejected proposals from Italian Economy Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa for closer coordination among national supervisory bodies, which he said required a single set of standards for supervision and greater information exchange.

French officials acknowledged that there was little prospect of change on that front at Thursday's talks in Paris, to which European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia got a last-minute invitation.

Ratings Agencies Under Fire

On ratings agencies, under heavy fire for failing to spot or flag the liquidity dangers lurking in many of the securitized debt derivatives at the heart of the credit crisis, there is more hope for progress, those officials said.

One element that would be broached in Paris was the need to get credit ratings agencies to carry out liquidity ratings too, and Moody's, one of three big rating agencies alongside Standard & Poor's and Fitch, appeared open to the idea, they said.

So far, the visible response to the credit crunch has been limited largely to central banks rather than governments and supervisory authorities.

The European Central Bank, followed by others, launched an emergency lending operation in short-term credit markets on Aug. 9 to prevent those markets from seizing up totally as fear over debt-derivatives exposure turned to panic.

Central banks have had to launch several follow-up operations since then to oil the wheels of global lending.

Central bankers, politicians and economists are worried that the credit crunch which snowballed out of a debt default crisis in the U.S. subprime mortgage market will ultimately damage broader economic activity and growth.

Major banks have so far announced roughly $75 billion in write-downs of subprime mortgage loans, leveraged loan commitments and other assets.

Economy-wide losses could be anything up to $300 billion, according to one estimate from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.