Mario Monti
Comments by Fitch Ratings' head of sovereign credit suggesting Italy could be downgraded have riled up the Italian political class. Even prime minister Mario Monti has indirectly chimed in. REUTERS

Officials at Fitch Ratings have kept themselves in the headlines this week, especially with comments regarding Italian bonds, in what may be a precursor to bringing their ratings of those bonds into line with their competition.

The European agency rates Italian bonds as A+, a notch above the ratings of competitors Moody's Investor's Services and Standard & Poor's.

If the frequency of public comments is any indication, Fitch may be preparing to adopt their U.S. rivals' take on Italian bonds.

David Riley, head of Fitch's sovereign debt unit, on Thursday told Reuters, "There is clearly a material risk of a downgrade of Italy by the end of this month. We are reviewing the situation. We're looking at the information and developments, so it's not a foregone conclusion ... but there is a significant risk that Italy could be downgraded."

Earlier in the day, Riley said Italy faces a "self-fulfilling liquidity crisis" as concerns about the government''s ability to roll over debt are prompting borrowing costs to rise even though the situation on the ground remains fundamentally unchanged.

"It shows the importance of perception," Riley was quoted by Bloomberg as saying during as Paris conference, where he also talked about the "schizophrenic approach" of the credit markets. "They applaud when countries impose austerity and then when they see the impact on growth, they punish them."

On Tuesday, Riley made similar comments to a conference in London.

"An act of financial terrorism"

Fitch's latest comments have served not only to fray the nerves of European bondholders, but also to rile up certain members of the Italian political class.

"It has to be seen as an act of financial terrorism," Margherita Boniver, a parliamentary deputy, said in comments quoted by the Wall Street Journal, calling Riley's comments a "threat."

On Wedneday, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti also made comments that indirectly alluded to criticism of his country, asserting that high borrowing rates are no longer justified since "representatives of those same markets have said they appreciated the efforts made" at fiscal reform.

"The benefit of the doubt"

Sean Egan, managing director at competitor Egan-Jones Ratings Co., told the International Business Times ratings issued by firms like Fitch should be taken with a grain of salt, given the conflict of interest that is baked into those firm's business models.

"The issuer-paid rating firms, in the case of high-profile, important ratings, they typically give the issuer the benefit of the doubt," Egan said.

His firm, which is smaller than its top competitors and operates through a subscription-based revenue model, has been much more downbeat on the Italian sovereign, long rating that country's debt issues as "junk." It last rated Italian government debt on Nov. 28, cutting its rating to speculative 'BB' grade.

"To put things into perspective, Moody's had Greece rated at A3. We had it rated at B," Egan added.

Egan was referencing a period early in 2011, before the fact that Greece would need to restructure its debt became obvious to the wider market. Greece is currently rated at the lowest level above default by all three major rating agencies, and at default by Egan-Jones.