7 Countries Spooking Investors

These countries are looking like risky bets to many in the business world.


Slide Show: 7 Countries Spooking Investors

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While the U.S. deficit might be increasing, there is no serious concern among holders of U.S. treasuries that the country will default on its debt. Despite federal spending consuming 27.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2009, the United States maintains a perfect Aaa rating from the credit rating service Moody's. But you can't say the same about many countries in both the developed and developing world where fiscal profligacy, as well as continued fallout from the economic crisis, is hurting their credit ratings. The economic downturn has made global investors much more worried that these countries are getting closer to bankruptcy, and as a result, it has become more expensive to insure sovereign debt.

[Slide Show: 7 Countries Spooking Investors.]

This riskiness has been quantified through data provided by Markit. The financial information company provides daily pricing on credit-default swaps, contracts between two parties that provide a kind of insurance on corporate and government debt. When it becomes more expensive to buy a credit-default swap on a government's debt, it generally means that investors see the country's economic situation getting riskier. The countries on this list are ranked by the percentage increase of the cost of their credit-default swaps over the past three months.

But a large increase in the cost of credit-default swaps alone does not mean that a country is especially risky. Swaps on U.S. sovereign debt have increased about 70 percent over the past three months—one of the highest overall, according to Markit. Some countries can maintain their credit reputation through other factors. For example, the United Arab Emirates has seen the cost of its credit-default swaps explode in recent months. Late last year, Moody's announced that Dubai's debt crisis would likely not lead to a re-evaluation of the United Arab Emirates' debt rating, saying that "the fiscal position of the UAE, and Abu Dhabi in particular, remains healthy." So U.S. News also looked at the countries for which Moody's has a negative outlook on their sovereign debt—meaning that further downgrade is possible.

[See Strategic Defaults and the Foreclosure Crisis.]

The following countries have both a negative outlook from Moody's and increases in the cost of credit-default swaps over the last 3 months. Investors have viewed the economic situations in these countries as increasingly risky bets.

1. Greece

Greece's economic problems contributed to the ousting of the center-right New Democracy party in elections last October, ending a five-year reign. From the rest of the world's point of view, things only got worse for Greece when, later that month, the European Commission announced that Greece's fiscal deficit stood at 14 percent of GDP—almost twice what the official Greek government statistics had reported. Two months later, Moody's downgraded Greece's debt to A2, and Moody's currently gives the country's debt a negative outlook, making another downgrade possible. Greece is now on track to surpass Italy as the European Union country with the worst budget problems. Eurostat, the EU's statistical arm, recently declared that Greek statistics on the budget still cannot be trusted. The reaction from investors to all this bad news has been striking: Greek CDS spreads (the cost of insuring its sovereign debt) increased about 156 percent in the last 3 months, the largest increase of any country. It currently costs about $315,000 annually to insure $10 million of Greek sovereign debt over five years.

2. Portugal

Just how deep in the red is Portugal? Several Portuguese cities are considering razing soccer stadiums in this football-loving country in order to replace them with business developments that might generate more revenue. The European Commission estimates that Portugal's deficit stands at 8 percent of GDP. Moody's has raised fears that Portugal's economy, like Greece's, is dying a "slow death," although the rating agency says Portugal's fiscal situation is not quite as bad as Greece's.