LONDON - The British government came under renewed criticism yesterday for its far-reaching austerity program after Moody’s Investors Service warned that the country could be next in line to lose its triple-A credit rating.
The opposition Labor Party and some business groups saw the threatened downgrade as evidence that the government’s deep spending cuts were hindering growth and called for a change of course. George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer, defended the cuts and said the idea that he had abandoned growth was “nonsense.’’
“This warning from Moody’s comes as something of a reality check to the UK,’’ said David Tinsley, an economist at BNP Paribas in London. “It serves as a reminder that the country does not have much room for any fiscal slippage if it is to keep its top credit rating.’’
Moody’s also lowered its outlook for the Austrian and French economies to “negative’’ and cut the debt ratings of six other European countries, including Spain, Italy, and Portugal.
Investors seemed to brush off the latest downgrades, however. Italy and Spain saw their borrowing costs drop yesterday in successful debt auctions. Italy raised about $7.9 billion in a bond sale that was 1.4 times oversubscribed, and at a substantially lower rate than the previous sale. Spain sold $7 billion worth of 12-month and 18-month bills, also paying less than at an earlier auction.
The warning on the British economy came as a surprise to the Treasury, which had repeatedly said that its ability to maintain its top credit score - even after the United States and France lost theirs - was an endorsement of the belt-tightening it began soon after the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took office in May 2010.
Moody’s cited “the weaker macroeconomic environment, which will challenge the government’s efforts’’ to reduce the deficit and “the high risk of further shocks within the currency union’’ as the main reasons for the change in Britain’s outlook. Osborne, who is expected to give his annual update on the economy next month, has already had to push back his initial goal of eliminating the budget deficit by 2015.
Moody’s said Britain’s “outstanding debt places it amongst the most heavily indebted of its AAA-rated peers, alongside the United States and France, whose AAA ratings also carry a negative outlook.’’ The two countries, along with Austria, have already lost their AAA status with Standard & Poor’s.
Moody’s supported Britain’s efforts to reduce the deficit but noted that slower economic growth could threaten such plans.
Ed Balls, the Labor Party’s candidate for the top Treasury post, said he “consistently argued that the chancellor’s gamble - raising taxes and cutting spending too far and too fast - would backfire because without a balanced plan that promotes jobs and economic growth, the government will not succeed in getting the deficit down.’’
Osborne disagreed and said that Moody’s announcement was “a reality check for the whole political system that Britain has to deal with its debt.’’
Economists disagree whether Britain slipped back into recession at the beginning of this year; there are signs that companies reduced investments and households cut spending as gas and food prices rose.
But there were also some positive signs. Consumer price inflation continued to fall in January and was 3.6 percent, down from 4.2 percent in December and a 5.2 percent peak in September.