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Ailing Portugal reels from credit downgrade

By Barry Hatton

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, July 6 2011 8:22 a.m. MDT

A man sells icecream from a motorcycle- cart across the street from the Portuguese finance ministry, in the background, Wednesday, July 6 2011, in Lisbon. Portugal's financial plight deepened Wednesday, with borrowing rates jumping higher and stocks slumping after ratings agency Moody's, downgraded its debt four notches Tuesday and said the country will likely follow Greece in needing a second rescue package.

Armando Franca, Associated Press

LISBON, Portugal — Portugal's financial plight deepened Wednesday, with borrowing rates jumping higher and stocks slumping after its bonds were downgraded to junk status. Spain and Italy were dragged into the downturn, adding new momentum to Europe's sovereign debt crisis.

Portugal's hopes of slowly emerging from its debt crisis were knocked by ratings agency Moody's, which downgraded Portugal's debt four notches Tuesday and said the country will likely follow Greece in needing a second rescue package.

Portugal took a €78 billion ($112 billion) bailout from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund earlier this year after nervous investors began charging it unsustainably steep returns on loans.

After the abrupt worsening of Portugal's financial situation, neighboring Spain immediately suffered a knock-on effect, with Madrid's main stock index down 1.5 percent and bond yields up. Spain, a much bigger country, until now has managed to dodge major fallout from the continent's fiscal woes.

The jitters were even felt in Italy, where stocks were down 2 percent on concerns that spending cuts might not be enough to bring down high debt.

The idea that the crisis might grow to engulf larger economies is a looming threat for markets. Rescuing Spain and Italy would be many times more expensive than all the bailouts the EU has paid for so far.

"The increasing risk is Italy gets caught up further in the contagion, and the bond market vigilantes dictate a more abrupt pace for its adjustment," said Alan Ruskin, an analyst at Deutsche Bank.

The Moody's downgrade — viewed by some analysts and officials as unexpectedly harsh — triggered new outrage in Portugal, where austerity measures over the past year have included tax hikes, pay freezes and welfare cuts.

Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho said the downgrade was "like a punch in the stomach." Fernando Faria de Oliveira, the head of Portugal's largest bank, the state-owned Caixa Geral de Depositos, called it "immoral and insulting."

Even Barclays Capital Research said the severity of the downgrade was surprising, adding it "seems more like a reaction to the Greek situation."

The tensions were nevertheless reflected in a Portuguese bond sale. Although the national debt agency managed to raise €848 million ($1.2 billion) from markets, investors demanded a high return. The yield in the sale of 3-month Treasury bills was 4.926 percent — up from 4.863 percent on the same bills in mid-June and not far from the record 4.967 percent on June 1.

The yield on Portuguese 10-year bonds rose to 12.2 percent, while the Lisbon stock exchange fell 2.4 percent with banks leading the decline.

Part of Moody's rationale for the downgrade was that the EU's determination to get private sector investors to share the burden of bailouts, as being discussed for Greece, increases the chances of Portugal being shut out of the market beyond 2013, when it hopes to resume bond issues.

Amadeu Altafaj Tardio, a spokesman for the EU's Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn, said "the timing of Moody's decision is not only questionable but also based on absolutely hypothetical scenarios which are not in line at all with the economic program."

"This is an unfortunate episode and it raises once more the issue of the appropriateness of behavior of rating agencies and of their clairvoyance," Tardio said in Brussels.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble expressed surprise, too, saying in Berlin, "I ... cannot see what this decision is based on."

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