Fitch Ratings Downgrades 5 European Countries

Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Slovenia and Spain downgraded with four Australian banks reviewed

Fitch Ratings went on a roll on Friday, downgrading Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Slovenia and Spain with the threat of additional cuts in the next one to two years. On Monday it went further afield, putting Australia's four major banks on review for possible downgrade, saying that the banks' reliance on offshore funding made them vulnerable as well.

Reuters reported that Friday's action was accompanied by a warning that the five countries were vulnerable to financial and monetary shocks over the short term. "Consequently, these sovereigns do not, in Fitch's view, accrue the full benefits of the euro's reserve currency status," the company said in a statement.

Despite the European Central Bank's (ECB) efforts to flood the market with liquidity through its long-term loans, offered in December, and the individual nations' efforts to contain their debt woes through austerity measures, Fitch found all avenues wanting.

In its statement, the firm said, "Overall, today's rating actions balance the marked deterioration in the economic outlook with both the substantive policy initiatives at the national level to address macro-financial and fiscal imbalances, and the initial success of the ECB's three-year Long-Term Refinancing Operation in easing near-term sovereign and bank funding pressures."

Italy was cut from A+ to A-; Spain to A from AA-minus; Cyprus to BBB-minus from BBB; Belgium to AA from AA-plus; and Slovenia to A from AA-minus. While Ireland's rating of BBB+ was affirmed, all the ratings were placed on negative outlook.

Five of Australia's banks had already been hit with downgrades from Standard & Poor's in December after S&P substantially changed its risk assessment criteria. Fitch said its move to change the outlook for Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Westpac Banking Corporation, National Australia Bank Ltd. and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group resulted from funding profiles weaker than those of similarly rated peers; it added that any downgrades would be "most likely" be only a single notch.

The so-called Big Four Australian banks must raise approximately $100 billion in 2012 to cover a shortfall between deposits and lending; much of the money is expected to come from the U.S. and Europe—which has capital shortfalls of its own.

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