Standard & Poor's carried out a mass downgrade of euro zone countries on Friday, stripping France and Austria of their top-grade AAA ratings in a move that may complicate efforts to solve a two-year old European debt crisis.
Germany, the bloc's largest economy, was spared.
Nine of the 17 members of the euro area had their credit ratings cut by S&P. France and four other countries suffered a one-notch downgrade while Portugal, Italy, Spain and Cyprus were cut by two notches.
S&P reaffirmed the ratings on seven other euro zone countries. The agency said that of the 16 countries reviewed, all save Germany and Slovakia have negative outlooks, meaning more downgrades are possible in the next couple of years.
The following statement was released by the rating agency:
-- In our view, the policy initiatives taken by European policymakers in recent weeks may be insufficient to fully address ongoing systemic stresses in the eurozone.
-- We are lowering our long-term ratings on nine eurozone sovereigns and affirming the ratings on seven.
-- The outlooks on our ratings on all but two of the 16 eurozone sovereigns are negative. The ratings on all 16 sovereigns have been removed from CreditWatch, where they were placed with negative implications on December 5, 2011 (except for Cyprus, which was first placed on CreditWatch on August 12, 2011).
Jan 13 - Standard & Poor's Ratings Services today announced its rating actions on 16 members of the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU or eurozone) following completion of its review.
We have lowered the long-term ratings on Cyprus, Italy, Portugal, and Spain by two notches; lowered the long-term ratings on Austria, France, Malta, Slovakia, and Slovenia, by one notch; and affirmed the long-term ratings on Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. All ratings have been removed from CreditWatch, where they were placed with negative implications on December 5, 2011 (except for Cyprus, which was first placed on CreditWatch on August 12, 2011).
. See list below for full details on the affected ratings.
The outlooks on the long-term ratings on Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain are negative, indicating that we believe that there is at least a one-in-three chance that the rating will be lowered in 2012 or 2013. The outlook horizon for issuers with investment-grade ratings is up to two years, and for issuers with speculative-grade ratings up to one year. The outlooks on the long-term ratings on Germany and Slovakia are stable.
We assigned recovery ratings of '4' to both Cyprus and Portugal, in accordance with our practice to assign recovery ratings to issuers rated in the speculative-grade category, indicating an expected recovery of 30%-50% should a default occur in the future.
Today's rating actions are primarily driven by our assessment that the policy initiatives that have been taken by European policymakers in recent weeks may be insufficient to fully address ongoing systemic stresses in the eurozone. In our view, these stresses include: (1) tightening credit conditions, (2) an increase in risk premiums for a widening group of eurozone issuers, (3) a simultaneous attempt to delever by governments and households, (4) weakening economic growth prospects, and (5) an open and prolonged dispute among European policymakers over the proper approach to address challenges.
The outcomes from the EU summit on December 9, 2011, and subsequent statements from policymakers, lead us to believe that the agreement reached has not produced a breakthrough of sufficient size and scope to fully address the eurozone's financial problems. In our opinion, the political agreement does not supply sufficient additional resources or operational flexibility to bolster European rescue operations, or extend enough support for those eurozone sovereigns subjected to heightened market pressures.
We also believe that the agreement is predicated on only a partial recognition of the source of the crisis: that the current financial turmoil stems primarily from fiscal profligacy at the periphery of the eurozone. In our view, however, the financial problems facing the eurozone are as much a consequence of rising external imbalances and divergences in competitiveness between the eurozone's core and the so-called "periphery". As such, we believe that a reform process based on a pillar of fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating, as domestic demand falls in line with consumers' rising concerns about job security and disposable incomes, eroding national tax revenues.
Accordingly, in line with our published sovereign criteria, we have adjusted downward our political scores (one of the five key factors in our criteria) for those eurozone sovereigns we had previously scored in our two highest categories. This reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of European policymaking and political institutions have not been as strong as we believe are called for by the severity of a broadening and deepening financial crisis in the eurozone.
In our view, it is increasingly likely that refinancing costs for certain countries may remain elevated, that credit availability and economic growth may further decelerate, and that pressure on financing conditions may persist. Accordingly, for those sovereigns we consider most at risk of an economic downturn and deteriorating funding conditions, for example due to their large cross-border financing needs, we have adjusted our external score downward.
On the other hand, we believe that eurozone monetary authorities have been instrumental in averting a collapse of market confidence. We see that the European Central Bank has successfully eased collateral requirements, allowing an ever expanding pool of assets to be used as collateral for its funding operations, and has lowered the fixed rate to 1% on its main refinancing operation, an all-time low. Most importantly in our view, it has engaged in unprecedented repurchase operations for financial institutions, greatly relieving the near-term funding pressures for banks. Accordingly we did not adjust the initial monetary score on any of the 16 sovereigns under review.
Moreover, we affirmed the ratings on the seven eurozone sovereigns that we believe are likely to be more resilient in light of their relatively strong external positions and less leveraged public and private sectors. These credit strengths remain robust enough, in our opinion, to neutralize the potential ratings impact from the lowering of our political score.
However, for those sovereigns with negative outlooks, we believe that downside risks persist and that a more adverse economic and financial environment could erode their relative strengths within the next year or two to a degree that in our view could warrant a further downward revision of their long-term ratings.
We believe that the main downside risks that could affect eurozone sovereigns to various degrees are related to the possibility of further significant fiscal deterioration as a consequence of a more recessionary macroeconomic environment and/or vulnerabilities to further intensification and broadening of risk aversion among investors, jeopardizing funding access at sustainable rates. A more severe financial and economic downturn than we currently envisage (see "Sovereign Risk Indicators", published December 28, 2011) could also lead to rising stress levels in the European banking system, potentially leading to additional fiscal costs for the sovereigns through various bank workout or recapitalization programs. Furthermore, we believe that there is a risk that reform fatigue could be mounting, especially in those countries that have experienced deep recessions and where growth prospects remain bleak, which could eventually lead us to the view that lower levels of predictability exist in policy orientation, and thus to a further downward adjustment of our political score.
Finally, while we currently assess the monetary authorities' response to the eurozone's financial problems as broadly adequate, our view could change as the crisis and the response to it evolves. If we lowered our initial monetary score for all eurozone sovereigns as a result, this could have negative consequences for the ratings on a number of countries.
In this context, we would note that the ratings on the eurozone sovereigns remain at comparatively high levels, with only three below investment grade (Portugal, Cyprus, and Greece). Historically, investment-grade-rated sovereigns have experienced very low default rates. From 1975 to 2010, the 15-year cumulative default rate for sovereigns rated in investment grade was 1.02%, and 0.00% for sovereigns rated in the 'A' category or higher. During this period, 97.78% of sovereigns rated 'AAA' at the beginning of the year retained their rating at the end of the year.
Following today's rating actions, Standard & Poor's will issue separate media releases concerning affected ratings on the funds, government-related entities, financial institutions, insurance companies, public finance, and structured finance sectors in due course.