credit ratings agencies

Over the course of the eurozone crisis, the relationship between EU leaders and credit-rating agencies has been, at best, a love-hate one, with officials frequently lashing out at the three major sovereign raters for the timing and severity of their downgrades.

So it was probably with some Schadenfreude that those same officials learned of the news that the US Justice Department will soon file a civil suit against Standard & Poor’s – arguably the most prominent of the rating agencies – for misleading investors when it gave gold-plated endorsements to US mortgage-related securities before the 2008 financial crisis.

But what happens when S&P starts pointing out that some of the most criticised eurozone policies – the austerity measures aimed at forcing internal devaluations in struggling peripheral countries – may be working? The silence thus far has been deafening. Read more

Spain's Mariano Rajoy, after a meeting at the Spanish parliament in Madrid earlier this month

The recent turn in market sentiment against Spain has led to a somewhat unanswerable debate in European policy circles about what, exactly, the markets are worried about: Is it that the new Rajoy government tried to break from tough EU-mandated deficit limits last month…or the fact they eventually agreed to stick to next year’s stringent target?

If Standard & Poor’s downgrade of Spanish debt last night is any indication, it appears the markets are more concerned about the latter than the former.

Most senior EU officials have a different view, arguing that by unilaterally declaring he was going to ignore the EU-mandated 4.4 per cent debt-to-gross domestic target for 2012, prime minister Mariano Rajoy spooked the bond market by signalling Spain had lost its sense of discipline.

But S&P makes a different argument. Read more

Protest signs on a wall in central Athens

Over the last 24 hours, a flurry of activity has taken place surrounding Greece’s €200bn debt restructuring, most of it expected but some of it potentially destabilising. Because the moves involve highly technical – but still significant – judgements by occasionally obscure groups, Brussels Blog thought it was time for another guide to what to watch for in the ensuing days.

The most eye-catching announcement was the one made last night by Standard & Poor’s declaring Greece to be in “selective default”. Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, chair of the group of eurozone finance ministers, put out a statement saying the move was “duly anticipated” – and he’s right. S&P signalled this way back in June when the first talk of a Greek restructuring began.

Even though it was expected, it’s still worth reflecting on: It is the first time an advanced economy has been in default since West Germany in 1948. Practically, however, the most important knock-on effect to watch will be on Greece’s banks. Read more

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi during last week's vote on new austerity measures

What ails Italy?

If one reads into the minutiae of last night’s Standard & Poor’s downgrade of Italian debt, it wouldn’t be hard to come away thinking that there was not a whole lot wrong with the eurozone’s third largest economy. It’s a “high-income sovereign with a diversified economy and few external imbalances”, S&P notes.

In addition, private sector debt – which crippled Ireland and Spain, when those debts moved onto government books via bank bail-outs – is low. Left unsaid by S&P (but highlighted by Moody’s when it announced its own review in June) is the fact Italy also has a primary budget surplus, which means it actually brings in more money than it spends, if you don’t count interest payments on debt.

According to S&P, then, what ails Italy is as much political as it is economic. Read more

Greek prime minister George Papandreou, at the end of Thursday's summit in Brussels

All eyes in Brussels will be watching the bond markets in the eurozone’s periphery this week,  particularly in Spain and Italy, where the danger of post-Greek deal contagion is most acute. After a brief relief rally after the bail-out package was agreed Thursday night, things have begun to look a bit shaky again.

Already, Moody’s this morning has joined Fitch in downgrading Greek bonds, citing the “substantial economic losses” Greek debt holders will incur under the plan. But it’s worth looking at a “special comment” Moody’s issued alongside the Greek downgrade, because there’s a bit of good news for European leaders in it. Read more

One reason why the eurozone is sliding into ever deeper trouble is because its political and bureaucratic elites do not like, do not understand and have no wish to understand financial markets.  This is an attitude embedded in European history and culture.  Think of the 1793 Law of the General Maximum, an arbitrary attempt to fix prices at the height of the French Revolution.  Or think of the social status attached for the past 150 years to being a state-employed soldier, teacher, office clerk or railway worker rather than a banker in Germany. Read more