European Financial Markets Shrug at Credit Downgrades

Posted January 16th, 2012 at 1:35 pm (UTC-5)
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European financial markets appeared largely indifferent Monday to last week's credit downgrades for France and eight other European countries, in part because investors had assumed for a while their ratings would be cut.

Europe's main stock exchanges in London, Paris and Frankfurt traded in a narrow range Monday, fluctuating with small gains and losses before ending ahead for the day. Earlier, Asian markets slid one percent or more in the first widespread stock trading after the ratings firm Standard & Poor's announced its downgrades on Friday. U.S. markets were closed for a holiday.

S&P said it thinks that European leaders are failing to adequately deal with the continent's two-year governmental debt crisis. But another of the world's three main credit-rating agencies, Moody's Investors Service, said it is maintaining France's top AAA rating while continuing to watch its economic policies over the first three months of the year.

Some analysts predicted that the credit downgrades would boost borrowing costs for the affected governments. But France sold nearly $11 billion in short-term bonds at a lower interest rate than it did at a similar auction last week.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, engaged in a tough re-election campaign, played down the effect of the S&P action. He said that “fundamentally it changes nothing,” while acknowledging that France must reduce its deficit and cut spending.

Meanwhile, attention turned to Greece's precarious financial state. The Athens government and representatives of some of the world's largest banks suspended negotiations Friday on eliminating about $127 billion of the country's debt to the financial institutions. The talks are set to resume Wednesday, with Prime Minister Lucas Papademos saying Greece and the creditors are “close to an agreement.”

Greece is attempting to negotiate a 50 percent forgiveness of its debt to private creditors to help it secure a new $165 billion bailout, its second in less than two years. Athens says it could default on its financial obligations in March without the new bailout.

But European leaders say they will not approve the new bailout without the Greek agreement with its creditors and Greece's imposition of more unpopular austerity measures to cut its deficit spending.