Debt Downgrade Jeopardizes Eurozone Recovery

Friday’s sovereign credit rating downgrade by Standard & Poor’s brings a new sense of urgency to the European debt crisis. The move also shines a spotlight on the region’s abysmal adherence to the Eurozone’s fiscal management rules as leaders prepare for yet another European summit on the debt crisis slated for January 30th.

Greek officials will actually get a head start on the summit as they are schedule to meet on January 18th following a series of unsuccessful discussions last week to reach an agreement with the country’s largest creditors. Last fall it appeared that a deal had been arranged that would see Greece’s largest creditors receive 50 percent of the face value on Greek debt. This arrangement was expected to reduce Greece’s deficit to 120 percent of GDP by the end of the next decade, but the deal now appears to be in question. Talks between the banks and the Greek government are scheduled to resume on January 18th.

Failure to come to terms on the debt discount places the release of the next tranche of emergency funding to Greece at risk. Greece has more than 14 billion euros ($17.8 billion) in debt due to mature over the next two months and if unable to meet the obligation, Greece would have no option but to enter into a full and uncontrolled default. Few expect it to come to this, however, as a calamitous default of this nature would spread debt contagion throughout much of the Eurozone at a rate beyond the region’s capacity to maintain.

Europe’s Largest Economies Suffer Credit Downgrade

In actual fact, few were surprised when Standard & Poor’s slashed credit ratings for a total of nine Eurozone countries late last Friday. Of the region’s top five economies, France and Austria both lost their coveted triple-A ratings leaving only Germany at the top tier. Italy and Spain were further downgraded to below investment grade status.

Citing deteriorating economic prospects and the anemic attempts so far to meet austerity targets and reduce deficits, S&P also placed the countries on a “negative” credit outlook leaving the door open to additional downgrades.

Following the official notice of the demotion, European officials rushed to minimize the impact of the historic downgrade. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she believed the credit action would prove to be positive as it would urge member states to agree to a “financial compact” to help salvage the union and the euro.

Markets were less optimistic and the first full day of trading following the downgrade was mixed. European stocks were up slightly near the end of the day, while markets were off by the mid-way point in the North American trading day. Still, the real test is expected to come tomorrow when Spain will attempt to raise about 6 billion euros ($7.6 billion) in short and mid-term bonds, with another 4 billion euros ($7.6 billion) in long bonds.

“The rating downgrade is definitely going to create headwind for the Spanish bond auction,” Christian Lenk, analyst at DZ Bank, told the Financial Times Deutschland. He said he didn’t believe that the country could “repeat last Thursday’s auction result,” in which it was able to sell twice as many bonds as envisaged at lower interest rates than before.

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