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Italy, Spain, Greece rates fall despite Moody’s blow

Italy, Spain and even Greece managed to raise fresh funds at lower borrowing rates Tuesday in spite of Moody’s sovereign debt downgrades and Athens’ battle to avert bankruptcy.

Italy and Spain, the eurozone’s third- and fourth-biggest economies, lured strong investor interest in defiance of the New York-based credit rating agency, which axed their ratings.

Even Greece, forced to accept tough austerity measures in return for an international bailout that staves off financial collapse, was able to trim costs when raising short-term debt on the market.

Investors seem to have had their pockets filled with cash since the European Central Bank in December extended nearly half a trillion euros in cheap three-year loans to eurozone banks.

They clamoured to lend money to all three countries and shrugged off Moody’s downgrades and warnings, which nevertheless irked several governments in the region.

Italy raised 6.0 billion euros ($7.9 billion) in an auction of two-, three- and five-year bonds; Spain sold 12- and 18-month bonds for 5.446 billion euros; and Greece picked up 1.3 billion euros in three-month bills.

All three managed to bring down their borrowing costs.

Spain enjoyed the strongest demand, which outstripped supply by nearly three to one; Italy benefitted from the sharpest drop in rates; and Greece showed it could still raise short-term financing even at a costly, albeit lower, borrowing rate of 4.61 percent rate.

Moody’s on Monday chopped the debt ratings of Italy, Spain and Portugal and put France, Britain and Austria on warning, saying they were increasingly vulnerable to the eurozone crisis.

Casting doubt over whether Europe’s leaders were doing enough to reverse the downslide of the region’s economy and financial sector, Moody’s also cut its ratings for Slovenia, Slovakia and Malta.

The ratings agency cited the region’s weak economic prospects as threatening “the implementation of domestic austerity programs and the structural reforms that are needed to promote competitiveness.”

Spain, which suffered the biggest, two-point cut in its credit rating, lashed out Moody’s decision, saying it was ‘contradictory’ given that the rating agencies have welcomed its latest economic reforms.

“It is good, they do their work, their valuations, but the truth is that it is a bit contradictory,” Budget Minister Cristobal Montoro told Onda Cero radio.

Moody’s said Spain’s regional governments were not making up budget shortfalls fast enough.

“Moody’s is skeptical that the new government will be able to achieve the targeted reduction in the general government budget deficit, leading to a further increase in the rapidly rising public debt ratio,” it said.

Britain’s finance minister, George Osborne, said the Moody’s warning showed his government was on the right track in pursuing harsh austerity measures to rein in the deficit.

But others smarted at the decision.

Austria’s government said it regretted Moody’s downgrade of its credit outlook, charging that the agency had failed to take into account a massive austerity plan to mop up the red ink in the government’s accounts.

Eurogroup finance ministers are to meet Wednesday to discuss the rescue for Greece, determined to leave Athens no wriggle room out of implementing required spending cuts.

Greece’s problems were illustrated by new data showed that the economy, in recession for a fifth year, shrank by 7.0 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 compared output a year earlier.

Luxembourg Finance Minister Luc Frieden even warned late on Monday that if Greece cannot deliver on its promises, then the eurozone will move on without it.