NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The Cyprus government has vowed to do what is needed to finalize a bailout agreement with international lenders after ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded Cyprus further into junk status amid concerns that the country could default on its debts.
The U.S. agency said Friday that the two-notch downgrade to CCC+ was due to a "considerable and rising" risk that the country, one of the 17 European Union countries that use the euro, may default. It also maintained its negative outlook on the country, meaning that further downgrades are possible.
S&P said it went ahead with the downgrade because the Cypriot government is running out of money while uncertainty remains over the terms of a bailout that the country is trying to negotiate with international lenders and its euro partners. The rescue loans will be used to salvage the country's banks, which are heavily exposed to Greece.
"With the government's financing options increasingly limited — coupled with what we view as the hesitant attitude of Cyprus' eurozone partners toward sharing the cost of a severe banking crisis — we view the risk of a sovereign debt default as considerable and rising," S&P said.
Unable to borrow from international markets for more than a year, the Cypriot government this week had to tap the pension funds of the country's top three state-owned companies to cover salaries and benefits up until March when it's hoped the first batch of bailout cash will arrive.
Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Friday that there are "appropriate aid mechanisms" for Cyprus, but that the country must first make "serious reforms" and achieve "real budget savings."
"If Cyprus is prepared to go down that path, then Europe is prepared to help," Westerwelle told public TV station ARD.
Cyprus government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou played down the S&P downgrade, saying the country is "making every effort" to clinch a bailout accord and attributed any difficulties with doing so to squabbles among its euro partners.
"It appears that there are problems on a European level," Stefanou told reporters without elaborating.
S&P said some progress has been made putting together the bailout with the "troika" of international creditors — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It also acknowledged the country's efforts to shore up public finances with this week's approval of the 2013 budget that incorporates troika-mandated spending cuts totaling almost 6 percent of the country's €17.5 billion ($23.2 billion) gross domestic product. Cyprus is the third-smallest economy in the eurozone, ahead of Estonia and Malta.
But the agency said it doubts whether state-owned companies have much more money to help the government pay its bills if a bailout deal isn't finalized by March, while presidential elections set for February could complicate matters.
S&P said it's still unclear how Cypriot banks — whose assets total more than five times the country's economy — will get the money they need to replenish their depleted capital buffers.
A draft version of the bailout foresees Cypriot banks needing up to €10 billion ($13.25 billion) to recapitalize, raising questions whether Cyprus can pay off any such loan when its economy is projected to contract by 3.5 percent of its GDP next year.
S&P said if the government were to take on the cost of the bank's recapitalization, the Cyprus' debt would rise "well above" 100 percent of GDP.
Cyprus' Finance Minister Vassos Shiarly said Thursday that it's premature to talk about whether the country's debt would be sustainable since an exact figure on the banks' actual needs won't be known before sometime next month when an assessment by investment firm PIMCO and auditors Deloitte will have wrapped up.
Cyprus' left-wing President Dimitris Christofias — who won't run for re-election in the February poll — said Friday that he would never accept a writedown of Cyprus' debt in order to make it sustainable, but Germany's government spokesman didn't rule it out.
"The ability of the country that should be helped to sustain its debt is of course a decisive factor and one must discuss how this debt sustainability can be achieved," Steffen Seibert told reporters.
A clause in the draft bailout plan stipulates that state-owned companies would have to go up for sale if the debt is deemed unsustainable, something that Christofias strongly opposes.
Eurozone group countries are expected to decide on the Cypriot bailout when they next meet on Jan. 21.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.