Belfast Telegraph

France risks losing credit rating as bailout fund takes shape

By Ben Chu

The French finance minister, Francois Baroin, came out fighting in defence of France's worthiness as a AAA nation yesterday.

He insisted there was absolutely no threat on the horizon to France's credit-worthiness after credit agency Moody said earlier this week that it would be monitoring France's public finances closely for the next three months.

But as both the US and Italy have discovered, credit rating agencies tend to make up their own minds about these matters. Like it or not, for the next three months, France's credit-worthiness hangs in the balance.

Moody's said its decision to monitor France was partly prompted by reports that eurozone leaders are preparing to announce plans this weekend to "leverage" the €440bn (£385bn) emergency bailout fund.

To do this, there are three broad plans in circulation. One involves the bailout fund, known at the moment as the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), turning itself into a bank with a mandate to lend to distressed eurozone sovereigns such as Italy and Spain. This new bank would, itself, be funded by borrowing from the European Central Bank.

This would, in theory, send a message to private investors that there would always be a buyer for European sovereign debt, thus making them comfortable about investing in the market.

The second plan involves scaling up the existing EFSF, allowing it to issue more bonds itself and to buy up distressed sovereign bonds.

The third plan is to turn the EFSF into an insurance fund for sovereign bonds issued by member states, backed by member states. The fund would guarantee a certain portion of any losses that private investors experienced on bonds. The idea, again, is to reassure investors in these bonds that they are safe investments.

Only one looks viable. The ECB has made its opposition to the first idea plain on the grounds that it would be the central bank holding the credit risk of a default. The second plan would likely result in the ballooning of the facility's own borrowing costs. For these reasons, a policymaker yesterday described the insurance fund idea as the "main contender".