France was stripped Friday of its top-notch credit rating and rumors swirled in financial markets that its debt-burdened neighbors would be next, complicating Europe’s efforts to solve its financial crisis.
Finance Minister Francois Baroin told a French TV station that France had been downgraded by one notch by credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s. That would mean a rating of AA+, the same as the United States since it was downgraded last summer.
Rumors coursed through the markets that Austria and Italy could be downgraded next, perhaps as early as the end of the day’s stock trading in New York. S&P had warned 15 European nations in December that they were at risk for a downgrade.
Baroin said France had received a change to its rating “like most of the eurozone,” referring to the 17 European nations that use the euro currency, but there was no confirmation from S&P that any other nation had been downgraded Friday.
France is the second-largest contributor behind Germany to Europe’s financial rescue fund. The fund still has a rating of AAA, which means that it can borrow on the bond market at low rates.
The cut in the French credit rating may lead bond traders to raise borrowing costs for the fund, said Guy LeBas, chief fixed income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott, a financial firm.
“There’s a legitimate reason to be concerned,” he said. “A weaker France means a weaker bailout fund.”
Stocks fell Friday as downgrade rumors reached the trading floors of Europe and the United States. But the declines were nothing like the wrenching swings of last summer and fall, when the debt crisis threw the markets into turmoil.
The industrial average in New York was down 0.5 precent. Stocks fell 0.6 percent in Germany, 0.5 percent in Britain and 0.1 in France, but each of those markets closed before Baroin made his announcement on French television.
Borrowing costs for the French government rose before the announcement. The yield on France’s 10-year government bond rose to 3.1 percent from 3 percent earlier. That is still less than the 3.36 percent rate on the same bond last week and far below the 6.6 percent that Italy has to pay to borrow money from bond investors for 10 years.
Germany, the strongest economy in Europe, pays a yield of just 1.76 percent. The United States 10-year Treasury note paid 1.85 percent Friday, down 0.08 percentage points – a sign that investors were seeking safety in U.S. debt.
The French government appeared to make a point of announcing the downgrade on its own terms, not S&P’s. France-2 television announced 10 minutes before its evening news program that Baroin would appear.
The finance minister said the downgrade was “bad news” but not “a catastrophe.”
“You have to be relative, you have keep your cool,” he said on France-2 television. “It’s necessary not to frighten the French people about it.”
Earlier Friday, the euro hit its lowest level in more than a year and borrowing costs for European nations rose. Stock markets in Europe and the U.S. fell.
Fears of a downgrade brought a sour end to a mildly encouraging week for Europe’s heavily indebted nations and were a stark reminder that the 17-country eurozone’s debt crisis is far from over.
Earlier Friday, Italy had capped a strong week for government debt auctions, seeing its borrowing costs drop for a second day in a row as it successfully raised as much as euro4.75 billion ($6.05 billion).
Spain and Italy completed successful bond auctions on Thursday, and European Central Bank president Mario Draghi noted “tentative signs of stabilization” in the region’s economy.
The downgrades could drive up the cost of European government debt as investors demand more compensation for holding bonds deemed to be riskier than they had been. Higher borrowing costs would put more financial pressure on countries already contending with heavy debt burdens.
In Greece, negotiations Friday to get investors to take a voluntary cut on their Greek bond holdings appeared close to collapse, raising the specter of a potentially disastrous default by the country that kicked off Europe’s financial troubles more than two years ago.
The deal, known as the Private Sector Involvement, aims to reduce Greece’s debt by euro100 billion by swapping private creditors’ bonds with new ones with a lower value, and is a key part of a euro130 billion international bailout. Without it, the country could suffer a catastrophic default that would send shock waves through the global economy.
Prime Minister Lucas Papademos and Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos met on Thursday and Friday with representatives of the Institute of International Finance, a global body representing the private bondholders. Finance ministry officials from the eurozone also met in Brussels Thursday night.
At Friday’s Italian auction, investors demanded an interest rate of 4.83 percent to lend Italy three-year money, down from an average rate of 5.62 percent in the previous auction and far lower than the 7.89 percent in November, when the country’s financial crisis was most acute.
While Italy paid a slightly higher rate for bonds maturing in 2018, which were also sold in Friday’s auction, demand was between 1.2 percent and 2.2 percent higher than what was on offer.
The results were not as strong as those of bond auctions the previous day, when Italy raised euro12 billion and demand was strong for a sale of Spanish debt.
“Overall, it underscores that while all the auctions in the eurozone have been battle victories, the war is a long way from being resolved (either way),” said Marc Ostwald, strategist at Monument Securities. “These euro area auctions will continue to present themselves as market risk events for a very protracted period.”
Italy’s euro1.9 trillion in government debt and heavy borrowing needs this year have made it a focal point of the European debt crisis.
Italy has passed austerity measures and is on a structural reform course that Premier Mario Monti claims should bring down Italy’s high bond yields, which he says are no longer warranted.
Analysts have said the successful recent bond auctions were at least in part the work of the ECB, which has inundated banks with cheap loans, giving them ready cash that at least some appear to be using to buy higher-yielding short-term government bonds.
Some 523 banks took euro489 billion in credit for up to three years at a current interest cost of 1 percent.