Moody's Investors Service cut the credit ratings of six German banking groups and Austria's three largest banks on Wednesday, saying they face risks if the eurozone crisis deepens.
The downgrades are part of a broad review of banks in the region that has had investors on edge but were mild compared to cuts for banks in weaker economies such as Spain and Italy.
Moody's said German lenders face risks to the quality of their assets if the eurozone crisis deepens or the global economy slows more, while also noting the relative strength of the German and Austrian economies.
Adding to fears of an escalation in the crisis, Spain said on Tuesday it was losing access to credit markets and appealed to its European partners to help revive its banks, a move likely to intensify global pressure on Europe to move quickly to the aid of its fourth-largest economy.
Commerzbank AG, Germany's second-largest lender, saw its long-term rating cut by one notch to A3 from A2 and assigned a negative outlook.
Other German banks Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg and Norddeutsche Landesbank GZ were lowered to A3 from A2 and given stable outlooks while Italy's UniCredit saw its German unit cut to A3 from A2 and given a negative outlook.
The agency delayed action on Deutsche Bank AG and its subsidiaries, saying that will come with reviews for other global firms with large capital markets operations.
In Austria, Moody's cut the long-term rating for Erste Group Bank AG by two notches to A3 from A1 and assigned a negative outlook while UniCredit Bank Austria AG was cut to A3 from A2, also with a negative outlook.
Raiffeisen Bank International AG was cut to A2 from A1 and assigned a stable outlook.
For the Austrian banks, Moody's noted vulnerabilities from operating conditions in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Moody's also noted limited loss-absorption capacities for both the German and Austrian banks.
Austria's central bank has been urging lenders to shore up their balance sheets, which it says are undercapitalized, compared with international peers, but it has also taken issue with critics of banks' exposure to emerging Europe.
It said last week that analysts had to differentiate more about the risks posed by countries in the region, and noted that Austria had adopted an early-warning mechanism that flagged potential problems from excessive loan-to-deposit ratios.
It also pointed out that Austrian banks had only slight exposure to southern Europe so "the risk profile is significantly better than in other European banking systems."
Ratings agencies see Austria's relatively large financial sector as a potential risk to sovereign ratings should the state need to step in again to prop up lenders.
Austria had to nationalize two banks during the 2008/09 financial crisis and has just got a large minority stake in ailing Volksbanken AG.
Moody's said on April 13 it would begin issuing conclusions to various reviews for European banks and global financial securities firms, including big U.S. investment banks. This process was to begin in mid-May and conclude by the end of June.
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