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Italy seeks to prosecute S&P and Fitch over ratings

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Prosecutors in Italy are preparing to reopen the wounds of the eurozone debt crisis as they fight a crisis-era downgrade that put Italian creditworthiness level with Kazakhstan's.

Five employees from global credit rating agency Standard & Poor's and one from Fitch are accused of inflicting unjustified damage to Italy for their role in credit rating decisions in 2011 and 2012.

The case is a late addition to the global lawsuits that have been raised against the world's largest credit rating agencies for their role in the financial crisis.

What marks the trial sought in Trani, southern Italy, as unusual is that individual employees are being accused alongside the agencies, although given the time lag since Italy's rating downgrade a number have since left S&P and Fitch and now work elsewhere.

Italians are sceptical. Last year, Italy's state auditor was roundly mocked for suggesting it could claim more than €200 billion in damages because S&P did not take Italy's history, art and landscape into account when downgrading the country. Since 2012 the country's rating has fallen still further to one notch above junk status as a result of weak economic growth and one of the largest burdens of debt in the world.

In late September, judges in Trani decided not to approve a transfer request from the defence to move the trial to Rome or Milan.

S&P and Fitch deny the allegations.

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"This case is based on a misunderstanding of our role, which is to support the transparency and liquidity of markets by providing an independent opinion of relative creditworthiness, based on our public and transparent methodologies," said S&P, adding that the agency stood behind its rating actions on Italy before and during the eurozone crisis.

"As we've stated throughout, we believe this case is without merit and we will continue to vigorously defend ourselves," said Fitch. "We are confident that Fitch and our people will be exonerated as trial proceedings continue."

The financial crisis sparked widespread debate on the role of credit rating agencies, but much of the industry appears largely unchanged. Issuers still pay for ratings, revenues are growing and just three companies dominate the global market.

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While numerous cases associated with the financial crisis have been filed against agencies, most have been withdrawn or dismissed. But not all.

In 2012, an Australian court ruled that S&P misled investors by awarding a triple A rating to complex derivatives that then collapsed in value.

Earlier this year, S&P paid $1.4 billion to settle claims led by the US Department of Justice that it had put triple-A ratings on structured financial products created from US mortgages in spite of growing risks in the housing market. The lawsuit cited documents in which one S&P employee joked that deals could have got a rating even if they were "structured by cows".