In its latest assault on sovereign debt ratings, Fitch Ratings has downgraded France’s default rating from ‘AAA’ to ‘AA+’ with a Stable outlook. Fitch is jointly owned (50% each) by Hearst Corporation and FIMALAC SA, a French holding company. Maybe that’s why it took this long.
When Fitch downgraded Italy in early March from ‘A-’ to ‘BBB+’, the ratings agency was worried about the country’s level of debt-to-GDP rising from a previously estimated 125% to 130%. Fitch now sees France’s debt-to-GDP ratio rising from a previous estimate of 94% to 96% in 2014 and declining more slowly than originally expected, to 92% in 2017 compared with an original estimate of a decline to 90%.
Risks to the agency’s fiscal projections lie mainly to the downside, owing to the uncertain growth outlook and the ongoing eurozone crisis, even assuming no wavering in commitment to fiscal consolidation. A debt ratio that is higher for longer reduces the fiscal space to absorb further adverse shocks.
In other words, there’s little chance that France can work its way out of the fix its in. Comparing the country to the U.S., which Fitch still rates ‘AAA’, the agency notes the “exceptional financing flexibility and debt tolerance’ afforded by the U.S. dollar’s status as a global reserve currency is not available to France. By itself France can’t do anything to revalue the euro and if anyone thinks that Germany will ride to the rescue, well, don’t bet on it.
As for those “adverse shocks” that Fitch refers to, one came today in the industrial production figures released for the eurozone. As long as the eurozone continues to promulgate austerity over expansion, unemployment won’t fall, export demand won’t pick up, domestic spending will have to decrease, and competitiveness will slide. France is just now getting trapped in the same corral as Italy, Spain, and the rest of the eurozone periphery. It’s an ugly picture.