EU Ministers Try to Reassure as Fear Pounds Markets

European finance ministers voiced concern on Tuesday as stock markets spooked by recession fear bled for a second day with scant regard for assurances that Europe would weather a storm blowing from the United States.

The chairman of the euro zone finance ministers, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, said the sell-off was partly irrational, while Spanish Economy Minister Pedro Solbes said everyone was concerned by the direction of markets.

"When financial markets act irrationally, and are driven by herd behavior, when stock markets demonstrate short-termism, there is no reason for finance ministers to do the same," Juncker told reporters on arriving for Tuesday's talks.

Other EU ministers sought to play down the impact on Europe.

"Even if the United States goes into recession ... it's not a tragedy in itself," French Economy Minister Christine Lagarde said.

She urged calm despite what she called a brutal correction in markets, as Asian shares skidded lower and set the scene for more trouble in Europe, where Monday's share sell-off generated the biggest one-day drop since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Sixty percent of French exports went to the rest of the euro zone and just 8 percent to the United States, Lagarde said.

"It's not because things are in a spin that we must lose our heads," she told Europe 1 radio.

Lagarde attended regular talks among the finance ministers from the 15 euro currency nations on Monday, a meeting widened on Tuesday to those from the rest of the 27-country European Union.

European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia called for a sense of perspective.

"It's not about global recession," he said on arrival for Tuesday's talks. "It's about a risk of a U.S. recession, which has created this situation on the markets."

Feeling Comfortable

Following Monday's talks, ministers acknowledged that Europe was no longer ruling out a U.S. recession but could withstand it without sliding into a downturn too.

"The economic situation in the U.S. is in no way comparable with that in Europe or the euro zone," Juncker told a late-night news conference after Monday's meeting.

"We feel comfortable with our economic situation at the moment. The economic situation in Europe seems to be uncoupled from the situation in the U.S."

European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet and International Monetary Fund boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn attended the talks too but did not comment on arrival on Tuesday. ECB executive board member Juergen Stark echoed calls for composure.

"The markets are very nervous. They get new information every day and are very sensitive to it, perhaps excessively so," Stark told Germany's Deutschlandfunk radio.

"This high volatility that we see is certainly not helpful but on the other hand, one should not exaggerate events."

U.S. President George W. Bush called on Friday for a package of tax cuts and other fast-acting measures worth perhaps as much as $140-150 billion to rescue an economy hit hard by a housing slump, mortgage default crisis and a global credit crunch.

Spain's Solbes said ministers were following events hourly but cautioned against reading too much into the gyrations since U.S. markets were closed on Monday.

Asian share markets nonetheless slid 4-8 percent from Tokyo to Sydney on Tuesday, and Europe started ominously.

Europe's FTSEurofirst 300 index fell 2 percent in early trade, Britain's FTSE 100 lost 2.7 percent. France's CAC 40 shed 2.8 percent and Germany's DAX slid 3.8 percent.

Some of those losses slimmed however as the morning wore on and the FTSEurofirst 300 turned positive around 9 am London time, up 0.1 percent at 1,280.81 points.

A sharp drop in U.S. stock index futures suggested New York might sell off hard when business reopened later in the day.