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MILAN: Moody’s has cut Italy’s credit rating by a notch over concerns about plans for larger deficits and the high public debt load as the country’s populist government clashes with Brussels over its budget.

The European Commission formally warned Italy late Thursday that its budget plans for 2019 are a serious concern, launching a high-stakes process that could see Rome hit with unprecedented sanctions for breaking commitments to Brussels.

At the heart of the concerns is Italy’s public debt, which amounts to 2.3 trillion euros, or 131 per cent of gross domestic product, the highest rate in the eurozone after Greece.

Brussels has demanded Italy cut spending and reduce its public deficit in order to pare down its debt pile.

But the country’s populist coalition government has done the opposite -- offering a draft budget that boosted overall spending.

The downgrade from Moody’s -- from Baa2 to Baa3 with a stable outlook -- is the latest move by international financial watchdogs sounding the alarm over Italy’s economic health.

The decision cited “material weakening in Italy’s fiscal strength, with the government targeting higher budget deficits for the coming years,” as well as debt holding near the current 130pc of GDP “rather than start trending down as previously expected”.

And Moody’s said “stalling of plans for structural economic and fiscal reforms” also had negative implications for the country’s growth outlook and debt.

Italy’s deficit is now projected at 2.4pc of GDP, far higher than the 0.8pc estimate given by the earlier centre-right government.

The budget drew stinging criticism from the EU’s top economic affairs officials, who penned a letter to Rome describing the plans as “unprecedented” and warning that Brussels does not rule out rejecting the entire budget.

Aimed at fulfilling electoral promises, Italy’s planned spending boost is what the government calls its “people’s budget”.

Published in Dawn, October 21st , 2018