* Govt bond spreads jump to 463 bps, new euro record
* Bank stocks down over 7 pct, shed 50 pct in debt crisis
* Fitch says time for govt to ask for EU/IMF help
* Germany says safety net still last resort (Adds euro zone leaders expected to discuss lifeline)
By Ingrid Melander and Harry Papachristou
ATHENS, April 8 (Reuters) - Markets pounded Greek bonds and banking stocks on Thursday, driving the debt-stricken euro zone member’s borrowing costs to new highs and pushing it closer to tapping a last resort EU/IMF safety net.
The government struggled to reassure markets it can stay solvent after the premium investors demand to buy Greek rather than the benchmark German government debt surged for the third day in a row to a record high since Greece joined the euro.
But scepticism at a dearth of details surrounding a proposed European Union and International Monetary Fund lifeline continued to pile pressure on a country already struggling to cover its wide fiscal gap and huge public debt load.
Chris Pryce, senior Greece analyst for rating agency Fitch, said Athens’ only choice now was to ask for help.
“Despite everything the EU and the euro zone have done there is still a lack of clarity (and) confusion about what they intend to do, when they intend do it and how much would be involved,” he told Reuters.
“It is now up to the Greek government to go publicly to the EU and IMF and ask for the cash and the support.”
Euro zone deputy finance ministers and central bankers were likely to discuss the terms on which emergency loans could be extended to Athens later on Thursday, a euro zone source said.
Greece’s government has pledged to cut its public finance deficit by almost one-third to 8.7 percent of gross domestic product this year, but is also wary of sparking public unrest after a string of riots and strikes since last year.
Reluctant to give in to the pressures, Greece insists it prefers to borrow from markets and will use the European Union/International Monetary Fund safety net agreed only as a last resort, a call it repeated on Thursday.
“For the time being it is not necessary to activate the aid mechanism. The EU/IMF safety net is there to guarantee that Greece is not alone,” said spokesman George Petalotis, adding Athens was striving not to borrow at “barbaric” interest rates.
But the 10-year Greek/German government yield spread spiked almost half a percentage point to as much as 463 basis points on Thursday. Two-year Greek government bond yields surged more than 100 bps to almost 8 percent.
Credit default swaps insuring Greek bonds for one year jumped 125 basis points to 600 — the equivalent of $600,000 for $10 million in debt — after rising to a record 650 earlier in the day, according to Markit Intraday.
“Spread levels today are insane, they are not levels for a euro zone country,” said Panagiotis Dimitropoulos, treasurer at Millennium Bank in Greece. “It seems Greece is being pushed towards the aid mechanism.”
Rating agency Standard & Poor’s said Greece was at risk of a downgrade if high borrowing costs persist and the government does not manage to address any deviation from its cost cutting plans that could follow, although senior analyst for Greece Marko Mrsnik said risk of default was very low.
Germany, which can veto Athens’ access to the aid package, also held firm on its position that it is only a last ditch option, with a spokesman saying that, despite the jump in borrowing costs, “the government’s position remains unchanged”.
Dealing with its own financial problems as a local election looms, Berlin has been loath to set a bad example for other euro zone offenders by letting Greece off the hook too lightly.
The euro zone source said euro zone officials had had a “convergence of views” and the terms should be similar to IMF financing conditions and terms agreed by EU governments.
Another source said the rate of interest should not be higher than 300 basis points over comparable German debt.
Greece’s woes drove the euro close to its 2009 low against the dollar on Thursday. It slipped 0.2 percent to $1.3306 at 1227 GMT, just off its 2010 low of $1.3267.
A Reuters poll showed 64 strategists saw the crisis eroding the euro further to $1.30 in a years time.
Despite the intensifying turmoil around Greek assets and its spiralling borrowing costs, European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet said there was no danger of default.
“I would say that taking all the information I have, that default is not an issue for Greece,” he told reporters after the ECB left interest rates on hold at a record low 1 percent and prolonged rules allowing Greek debt to be used as collateral for cheap central bank cash.
The next main challenge Greece faces is to borrow 11 billion euros by the end of May to roll over debt and cover spending.
Three bonds worth 18 billion euros have performed badly this year in the secondary market, and analysts and investors say a dollar bond planned for April and May will struggle to draw demand at the 7 percent yield seen attractive by the government.
Banks, which have asked to tap 17 billion euros remaining in a crisis support package, saw shares tumble more than 7 percent before retreating to close 6 percent lower.
They have been hit by worsening portfolio performance due to the deterioration of the state bonds which the banks hold and a rise in non-performing loans, and media have reported foreign banks have stopped taking part in interbank activity, squeezing banks’ ability to roll over short-term loans.
They are down 50 percent since worries over how Greece will cut a debt pile that exceeds its annual economic output by a fifth started to rattle investors in mid-October, wiping out about 24 billion euros ($32 billion) in market capitalisation.
Another issue causing worry was new ECB rules announced on Thursday on extending easier lending terms for holders of Greek government bonds into 2011. The rules defuse the danger of Greek debt falling off the list of what banks can swap for ECB loans next year if it faces more ratings downgrades. ID:nFAT007045
Markets had worried they could introduce a new risk premium scale, or “haircuts”, on bonds that are used widely by Greek banks to tap ECB credit. But the ECB left its current rules in place for government-issued — including Greek — debt. (Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas and Harry Papachristou in Athens, Jan Strupczewski and Julien Toyer in Brussels, Sakari Suoninen and Marc Jones in Frankfurt; writing by Michael Winfrey; Editing by Stephen Nisbet) ($1=.7511 euros)