Rating agencies buy into euro zone recovery story

Friday 25 April 2014 18.26
Ratings agencies give upbeat assessment of the euro zone's creditworthiness
Ratings agencies give upbeat assessment of the euro zone's creditworthiness

Ratings agencies gave a broadly upbeat assessment of the euro zone's creditworthiness today. 

These contrasted sharply with the reviews of recent years and reflecting growing confidence in the region's fiscal and economic recovery. 

On a day of credit updates scheduled for three of the region's top four economies, Standard & Poor's affirmed its ratings on France and Fitch raised its outlook on Italy and upgraded Spain. 

S&P also raised its rating on Cyprus, suggesting the recovery is spreading to the peripheral regions left most exposed to the euro zone's financial crisis.  

The upgrade was its second of the bailed-out country since it came close to financial collapse last year.

Borrowing costs for the countries worst hit by the crisis have fallen sharply as the European Central Bank's monetary policy encourages investors hunting for returns to bet on their recovering economies. 

Fitch improved by one notch Spain's sovereign credit rating to BBB+, three steps above junk. 

Fitch also boosted its outlook on Italy to stable, with the sovereign rating affirmed at BBB+. That followed an upgrade earlier this month of its outlook on bailed-out Portugal to positive from negative. 

Meanwhile, Fitch upgraded Spain's sovereign credit, pointing to the nation's lower borrowing costs, brighter economic outlook and sturdier banks. 

Spain's creditworthiness score was lifted to BBB+ from BBB, indicating the country has a "good credit quality" with a low risk of defaulting on its foreign borrowing.

And S&P confirmed France's long-term rating at AA with a stable outlook.

Improving euro zone public finances 'a major achievement'

In a separate statement about the euro zone as a whole, Fitch said improving public finances were "major achievements," although still-high debt levels in the region and its weak medium-term growth outlook warranted caution. 

A wave of euro zone credit downgrades during the financial crisis led policymakers and economists to blame the ratings agencies for exacerbating investor flight from the region - blame the agencies say is misplaced.

Prosecutors in southern Italy have requested that two ratings agencies stand trial for allegedly prompting a sell-off of Italian assets with downgrades between 2010 and 2012. The agencies say the accusations are baseless.

Today, the mood seems to be shifting in Europe. 

The euro zone's recession ended in the second quarter of last year. Market pressures on weaker countries have eased, in part because of domestic reform efforts but also because of an ECB pledge to do whatever it takes to save the euro. 

For France, S&P praised efforts by the country's Socialist government to boost competitiveness by reducing labour costs and corporate taxation. 

France earlier this week signed off on a fiscal package that includes €50 billion in spending cuts between 2015 and 2017, as it raised its official deficit forecasts for this year and the next.  

In upgrading Spain, Fitch cited improved financing conditions, a more certain economic outlook and the diminished risk from Spain's banks, which have gone through a massive clean-up and recapitalisation.

Standard and Poor's Spain rating stands at BBB-, just above junk. Moody's raised Spain to two notches above junk in February. 

Fitch mentioned a number of risks still hanging over Spain, including a still-large public deficit and climbing public debt pile, weak medium-term growth prospects and exceptionally high joblessness. One of four members of the Spain's labour force is jobless. 

In Italy, Fitch cited improved funding conditions and an end to the country's worst post-war recession among reasons to raise the outlook. It also mentioned recapitalisation efforts at Italian banks, which are planning to raise about €10 billion from investors and are less likely now to need public aid. 

However, it warned that with public debt set to peak at 135% of national output this year and stay above 130% until 2017, Italy had limited ability to react to potential shocks.