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S&P could put eurozone on credit watch

By Gabriele Steinhauser and Greg Keller

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 5 2011 9:25 p.m. MST

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, smiles as he shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel prior to their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday Dec. 5, 2011. The leaders of Germany and France will try to agree Monday on a cohesive plan to help save the euro through stricter oversight of government budgets. Financial markets signaled optimism that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will unveil a unified plan that tightens political and economic cooperation among the 17 European Union countries that use the euro and sets the stage for more aggressive aid from the European Central Bank.

Remy de la Mauviniere, Associated Press

BRUSSELS — Efforts to stabilize Europe's financial crisis were thrown into disarray late Monday as the 17 countries that use the euro braced for a possible downgrade of their credit ratings.

The leaders of France and Germany sought to restore confidence in the troubled European currency during the day with a joint call for changes to the European Union treaty so that countries using the euro would face automatic penalties if budget deficits ran too high.

Stock prices rose and borrowing costs for European governments dropped sharply in response to the changes proposed by French President Nikolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They said their proposals would prevent the kind of out-of-control spending and borrowing that led to the debt crisis that is engulfing Europe and threatening the global financial system.

But on Monday night two people familiar with the matter said Standard & Poor's is examining the credit rating of all 17 eurozone countries for a possible downgrade as the continent's debt crisis lingers. They said S&P is likely to make an announcement on putting the euro countries on "credit watch" after the closing of markets in the U.S. on Monday.

The people were speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The threat to downgrade all 17 eurozone countries — including the ones that enjoy the stellar AAA-rating — comes ahead of a crucial summit of EU leaders later this week. If there is widespread support at the summit, it is assumed that would be an important first step in bringing an end to the crisis, which has dragged on for more than two years.

"Our wish is to go on a forced march toward re-establishing confidence in the eurozone," Sarkozy said at a news conference in Paris, with Merkel at his side. "We are conscious of the gravity of the situation and of the responsibility that rests on our shoulders."

EU treaty changes could take months, if not years, to implement and don't wipe away the mountains of government debt dragging down Europe's economy. But preliminary buy-in Friday from the 17 countries that use the euro could set the stage for further emergency aid from the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund or some combination.

"The onus is still on the ECB to print money to make huge loans or bond purchases and draw a line under the crisis," said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics. "Perhaps if other member states sign up to Merkel's and Sarkozy's proposals this week the (ECB) will step in."

Sarkozy pledged to have a revised EU treaty ready for signing by March. It would then need to be ratified in each country, which could mean lengthy parliamentary debates or national referendums in some cases.

"A lot depends on the specifics and how these are going to be framed by lawyers," said Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, an expert on EU constitutional issues at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

At the very least, it could take at least 18 months to ratify a new treaty once it has been signed by all heads of state, said Kaczynski. "That is a much longer timeline than what markets might want," he said.

Bond-market analysts said they remain skeptical of Europe's ability to prevent future profligacy.

"If you say it strong enough and often enough maybe people will believe it," said Guy LeBas, chief fixed income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott. "But I don't think the markets believe 'Merkozy' at this point."

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