Rating agency Moody's announced on Tuesday it had downgraded six European nations including Italy, Spain and Portugal, citing growing risks from Europe's debt crisis, and warned it may cut the triple-A ratings of France, Britain and Austria.
Moody's move was less aggressive than rival agency Standard & Poor's, but its action puts London's prized top credit rating in jeopardy for the first time.
It said it was worried about Europe's ability to undertake the reforms needed to address the crisis and the amount of funds available to fight it. It also said the region's weak economy could undermine austerity drives by governments to fix their finances.
The US rating agency said it changed the outlooks for the ratings of France, Britain and Austria to negative due to a number of specific credit pressures that would exacerbate the susceptibility of these sovereigns' balance sheets.
Germany's top-tier rating was described as appropriate by Moody's, and it affirmed the triple-A rating on the Euro zone's bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF).
Moody's, which said late last year it was reconsidering its European ratings, cut the ratings of Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Malta by one notch. It downgraded Spain by two notches in spite of the fact that conservative President Mariano Rajoy last week drastically slashed labour benefits.
Moody's said the scope of the downgrades was limited due to the European authorities' commitment to preserving the monetary union and implementing whatever reforms are needed to restore market confidence.
The announcement came a day after Greece's parliament approved a deep new round of budget cuts in the hope of securing new bailout funds and avoiding a chaotic default in March.
The rating outlooks of the nine countries affected by Moody's action was set to negative, given the continuing uncertainty over financing conditions over the next few quarters and its corresponding impact on creditworthiness, Moody's said.