Moody's cut Ireland's credit rating on Monday, warning the country faces a slow climb out of recession as the cost of a rescue of its banking sector mounts.
The one-notch downgrade to Aa2, which came a day ahead of a scheduled sale of up to 1.5 billion euros of Irish debt, put Moody's on par with rival agency Standard and Poor's AA rating and still one notch above Fitch.
Moody's also changed its outlook to stable from negative.
The downgrade, which a minister said provided no surprises but which weakened the euro versus the dollar and hit European stocks, prefaced a sale of six- and 10-year bonds worth between 1 billion and 1.5 billion euros at Ireland's regular monthly auction.
The timing isn't great, given the bond auction tomorrow and certainly this will add to the premium that will need to be paid to raise money, Alan McQuaid, chief economist at Bloxham, said.
Today's downgrade is primarily driven by the Irish government's gradual but significant loss of financial strength, as reflected by its deteriorating debt affordability, Dietmar Hornung, a Moody's vice president and lead analyst for Ireland, said in a statement.
Some of the euro zone's toughest spending cuts last year gave Ireland a brief respite from the market assault on peripheral euro members, but its fiscal rectitude has been all but overshadowed by fresh rounds of bad news on the banking front.
The cost of bailing out nationalized Anglo Irish Bank last year gave Ireland a budget deficit of 14 percent per gross domestic product, the highest in Europe, which could rise to 20 percent or more this year, the state-funded Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) said last week.
With Ireland have emerged from the euro zone's longest running recession in the first quarter, Moody's said it expected Irish medium-term economic growth of 2-3 percent per year, below the 4 percent projection built into the government's fiscal program.
Moody's said banking and real estate -- engines of growth in the years preceding the country's crisis -- would not contribute meaningfully to overall growth in the coming years.
It's really not telling us anything that we don't know already, said Martin Mansergh, Ireland's minister of state for finance. We all know that banking and real estate are not going to be sources of growth.
The IMF last week said Dublin would not meet a European Union-agreed deadline to reduce its budget deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2014, also citing threats to Ireland's growth target.
While the Irish public has so far grudgingly accepted fiscal tightening, a senior official in Prime Minister Brian Cowen's governing coalition said on Sunday voters might not be ready to accept all the cuts still envisaged by the government.
On the positive side, Ireland does not face any major bond redemptions this year and it has raised enough bonds to see it through to the first quarter of 2011 regardless of the outcome of upcoming monthly auctions, officials say.
Moody's action also suggested the country was close to hitting its ratings floor, said David Schnautz, a Commerzbank strategist in London.
They ... stabilized the outlook, which might indicate that we're much closer to a bottom in ratings. ...This is something which in the end should turn out to be supportive for Irish bonds and (euro zone) peripherals as well.
The spread of Irish 10-year bonds against their German equivalent widened on Monday to 300 basis points, their highest since July 2.
(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin; editing by John Stonestreet)