S&P's US downgrade sparks stock sell-off

Alarm over deteriorating public finances in the US, Greece and other peripheral eurozone nations hit markets today, pushing the FTSE down to its lowest close in four weeks.

Credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s cut its outlook on the US’ rating outlook to negative, from stable, citing a lack of decisive action to rein in its growing budget deficit.

The new hit the FTSE 100, pushing it down 2.1 per cent to close at 5,870.08, despite it climbing to the 6,000 mark earlier in the day.

“All thoughts of a quiet lead-up to Easter were blown out of the water this afternoon when Standard and Poors put the US on negative watch, sending an already weaker equity market even lower,” said CMC markets analyst Michael Hewson.

Adding to the woes, Moody’s downgraded Ireland’s rating to ‘junk’ while Finland’s strongly euro-sceptic new government stoked fears that it would object to the impending ratification of Portugal’s bailout.

Just two stocks – WPP and Serco, each up about 0.1 per cent – rose by the end of the day, while household goods maker Reckitt Benckiser finished unchanged.

Miners were among the worst affected by the rush away from risky stocks, with Antofagasta (down five per cent to 1,304p) and Anglo American (down five per cent to 2,983p) leading the fallers.

Precious metal miner Fresnillo, which fell 3.9 per cent to 1,514p, and copper miner Kazakhmys, which ended 3.8 per cent lower at 1,308p, both also featured among the biggest fallers.

Life insurance consolidator Resolution closed down 4.8 per cent at 294.7p with traders blaming UBS analysts’ decision to downgrade it to neutral as its strategy moves from acquisitions to extracting returns.

Fellow life insurers Aviva (down 4.6 per cent at 414.7p) and Prudential (down 3.7 per cent to 715.5p were also affected.

The banking sector also suffered from the eurozone concerns. Barclays lost 3.6 per cent to finish at 290.7p, while RBS closed down two per cent at 41.81p.

“The banking sector has also slumped on the back of reports, later denied, that the Greek government had approached the EU/IMF with a view to restructuring their debt. However with bond yields continuing to surge the market appears to be pricing in an inevitable default scenario,” Hewson said.

The FTSE 250 fared slightly better, as online gaming firm Bwin.party Digital Entertainment jumped 30 per cent to 170p on the back of a US government crackdown on the other major players in the sector.

US markets also opened lower over the S&P downgrade, but recovered some ground in later trading after traders said the shock sell-off of stocks was overblown.

The Dow Jones industrial average ended 140.24 points, or 1.14 per cent, to 12,201.59. The Standard & Poor's 500 finished down 14.55 points, or 1.1 per cent, to 1,305.13, while the Nasdaq Composite index closed 29.27 points, or 1.06 per cent, down at 2,735.38.