Portugal Downgrade? Rolling Debt Problems Across Europe

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Sovereign debt downgrades are usually a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moody’s or another agency threatens a downgrade or actually makes one. This causes the country which faces the action to explain to the capital markets why the risks of investing in its debt are not so risky. Investors become skeptical, which drives up what the nation must pay in interest. Those higher interest rates make it nearly impossible for the country to fund its deficits.

Moody’s placed Portugal’s A1 long-term and Prime-1 short-term government bond ratings on review for possible downgrade. The credit agency listed among its reasons:

(1) Uncertainties about Portugal’s longer-term economic vitality, which will be exacerbated by the impact of fiscal austerity;

(2) Concerns about Portugal’s ability to access the capital markets at a sustainable price; and

(3) Concerns about the possible impact on the government’s debt metrics of further support for the banking sector, which may be needed for the banks to regain access to the private capital markets.

These bear an uncanny resemblance to comments about Ireland and Spain recently made by one or more of the three credit agencies.

Capital markets investors complain that the ratings changes come after the credit problems are already well known. The ratings agencies say, in response, that it is only prudent to issue comments until there has been a careful examination of each situation. Neither point of view matters much to Portugal. It will have to continue to fight for its financial independence as the pessimism about the fates of Europe’s smaller nations increases.

The EU has decided not to offer unconditional support for countries like Portugal. Germany, the largest economy in the region, says it does not have bottomless pockets. A decision by the country to offer a tremendous amount of capital to support its neighbors would eventually damage its own rating, Germany says. The comments have the power of being true. China, the largest investor in sovereign debt, has also said it is worried that the countries in Europe have not found a way to solve their financial problems. If China becomes reluctant to invest in the region, borrowing costs might even go higher.

It is obvious to say that downgrades will continue as deficits in the region grow and the interest rates that must be paid on the paper rise. It is equally obvious that none of the financial organizations in the EU have offered a solution to the problem which can calm investors.

All of these problems have caused a desperate search for solutions. But, there are not any. The lines have already been drawn. There are no huge and ready pools of money to put capital into nations like Portugal. The country’s eurozone neighbors will not help it. A default is nearly inevitable. It will be rescued, but by that time it will no longer be sovereign. The price will be too steep.

Douglas A. McIntyre

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