Ratings firm Standard & Poor's on Tuesday downgraded two-dozen Italian banks and financial institutions, in a latest blow against the Italian economy and sparking a new round of doubts about Italy's chances to survive the ongoing financial crisis.
S&P cited renewed market tensions and "dimming" economic growth prospects as the reason behind the latest downgrades, the fourth by the U.S.-based rating agency in Italy in less than a month.
The wave of downgrades started on Sept. 19 when the company downgraded Italy's sovereign debt. A few days later, it downgraded the ratings for six Italian banks, and then soon after, for 11 city and regional governments.
Before Tuesday, the two most recent downgrades were mostly technical, because it is unusual for a bank or a local government entity to maintain a higher credit rating than the country it is in.
But the fresh rating cuts for two-dozen Italian banks and financial institutions were not related to the Sept. 19 downgrade of the country's sovereign debt, and are thus more problematic.
Commenting on Tuesday's downgrades, Italian banks complained that the move might have been unwarranted.
"There was little warning that this would happen and it is difficult to imagine that the underlying fundamentals of 24 Italian banks changed so quickly," said Raffaelle Saier, an analyst with ABS Securities in Milan, which was not directly affected by the downgrade.
With the lower ratings, the 24 banks would face greater obstacles to raise capital on debt markets.
A likely consequence is that they will further tighten the purse strings on credit for Italian consumers or companies.
If that happens, it is likely to have a ripple effect across the Italian economy, from housing sales to long-term corporate investments.
Meanwhile, S&P also lowered its Banking Industry Country Risk Assessment for Italy to Group 3 from Group 2. Group 3 is the lowest investment grade rating.
Most of the country's biggest banks were spared, however. UniCredit, the country's largest bank, was not downgraded and it remains the only large Italian financial institution which has not had its credit rating cut since Sept. 19.
The biggest bank that saw its rating cut was Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Italy's fourth leading bank, which was reduced by one notch to BBB+, as S&P said its exposure to Italian government debt would make it more difficult for the bank to borrow money at low rates.
Italian stock exchange witnessed a mixed response to the S&P rating cuts. Stocks dipped late in the trading day after rumors of the news spread, but bounced back in the final minutes of the session to close up 0.35 percent higher on the day. But Italian banking stocks suffered in after-hours trading and were likely to open Wednesday's session in the red, analysts said.
Meanwhile, the yield on Italy's 10-year bond rose by 7 basis points to 5.867 percent, amidst growing concerns over Italy's ability to avoid debt problems further down the line. The figure is the highest since Aug. 8, before the European Central Bank starting buying Italian bonds in order to keep borrowing costs down.