Moody's Investors Service cut the debt ratings of six European countries, including Italy, Spain and Portugal and said it may strip France and the UK of their top Aaa ratings, citing Europe's debt crisis.
Spain was downgraded to A3 from A1 Tuesday, Italy to A3 from A2 and Portugal to Ba3 from Ba2, all with negative outlooks. Slovakia, Slovenia and Malta also had their ratings lowered.
"Policymakers have made steps forward but we do not think they have done enough to reassure the market that we are on a stable path," said Alistair Wilson, chief credit officer for Europe at Moody's in London. "What will guide long-term ratings is the clarity and the performance of policy makers and the macro picture."
Moody's decision highlighted the risk that the European debt crisis will deepen even as the region's finance ministers prepare to meet today to discuss a second aid package for Greece, following the country's approval of austerity measures.
Moody's Tuesday also lowered its outlook on Austria's Aaa rating to negative. Malta's rating was downgraded to A3 from A2, and Slovakia and Slovenia were both downgraded to A2 from A1. All three were given negative outlooks. In a statement earlier yesterday, the ratings company affirmed its top Aaa rating for the European Financial Stability Facility.
Moody's said Europe's "increasingly weak macroeconomic prospects" threaten the "implementation of domestic austerity programs and the structural reforms that are needed to promote competitiveness." It said market confidence "is likely to remain fragile, with a high potential for further shocks to funding conditions for stressed sovereigns and banks."
In the UK, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said his fiscal consolidation programme is the only thing stopping Britain from an immediate downgrade.
"This is proof that, in the current global situation, Britain cannot waver from dealing with its debts," Osborne said in an e-mailed statement released by the Treasury in London yesterday.
Speaking later, Osborne fended off opposition accusations that he's not doing enough to boost growth.
"For me it was a reality check," Osborne told BBC Radio 4's Today show yesterday morning. "It's yet another reminder that Britain doesn't have an easy way out of its economic problems."
The Moody's warning triggered an attack from the opposition Labour Party, which said the pace of Osborne's budget cuts is damaging confidence in an economy struggling to avoid a second recession in three years. Osborne says his approach has helped to maintain the top debt rating — a keystone of government policy —, pushed gilt yields lower and given room for the central bank to loosen monetary policy.
The cuts will see more than 700,000 public-sector jobs axed in the tightest fiscal squeeze since the Second World War, erasing the bulk of a budget deficit equal to 9 per cent of gross domestic product by 2017.
Moody's said Osborne needs to stick to the plan to maintain confidence. Even then, the UK will be vulnerable to shocks that could blow his plans off course given the limited room for a policy response.
French Finance Minister Francois Baroin said the country's AAA rating was maintained by Moody's because of "the size of its economy" and its "increased productivity."