LONDON The worst is yet to come in the euro zone's debt crisis but the currency union will survive 2012 intact, according to a Reuters poll of economists who say France will probably lose its top-notch credit rating.
While just nine out of the poll's 64 economists said the bloc had turned the corner on a sovereign debt crisis, only 10 said the euro zone would not survive the year in its current form. The rest were reasonably confident it would.
A similarly firm majority of those surveyed in the last few days said France would lose its coveted 'AAA' rating in the next three months, while Belgium, Italy and Spain will suffer further cuts to their ratings.
Athens, which is racing to secure funding from its euro zone partners and the International Monetary Fund to avoid a sovereign default in March, was cited as the most pressing risk to the euro zone's economic stability.
"All eyes are still on Greece. The situation looks extraordinarily bleak. The household sector is getting hammered ... the banking sector is getting pummeled to pieces," said James Nixon at Societe Generale.
"But if someone keeps writing the cheques Greece will survive."
The poll indicates at least some improvement in sentiment compared with late last year. A November poll of leading academics and former policymakers, for instance, said the euro zone was not likely to emerge from the crisis intact.
However, many of the economists in the latest poll work for the large European banks that stand to lose the most under the gloomier scenarios for the single currency bloc - perhaps one factor behind the relatively more hopeful outlook.
STILL NO QE
Late last year, the European Central Bank pumped around half a trillion euros of cheap three-year money into the banking system to ease tensions in money markets.
Four-fifths of respondents said this had relieved pressure on the bank to start printing money, given that some of this excess cash has found its way into the government securities the ECB is reluctant to purchase.
ECB policymaker Christian Noyer noted last week that European sovereign debt sales had been going much better since the central bank started to extend long-term loans to banks.
The ECB has bought government bonds from some member states, notably Italy and Spain, to lessen painfully high borrowing costs in its regular program.
But it has "sterilized" these purchases by draining equal amounts of liquidity from the banking system.
Otherwise, the process would be quantitative easing (QE), purchasing bonds with freshly printed money. The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have been conducting QE for several years in vast sums.
Economists gave only roughly one-in-three odds that the ECB would do the same before June, in line with a poll taken last week.
But David Riley, the head of sovereign ratings for credit agency Fitch, said on Wednesday the ECB should ramp up its bond buying to support Italy and prevent a "cataclysmic" collapse of the euro.
ECB President Mario Draghi has made clear he is against conducting outright QE.
"The only situation where I can see QE in the euro zone is if there a deflation risk. At the moment I don't think that is where we are going," said Silvio Peruzzo at RBS.
Last year was a tumultuous one for the euro zone. Governments tried to slash debts with unpopular austerity budgets while simultaneously attempting to restore market confidence, ending up in or on the edge of recession in the process.
The stalling economy in turn has hit government balance sheets in desperate need of repair.
France will probably lose its triple-A credit rating in the next three months, according to the poll, which found 18 of 59 saying it was highly likely and 33 that it was likely.
A cut to the rating would potentially make borrowing more expensive but agency Standard & Poor's said on Friday that France would not necessarily suffer financially if its credit rating was lowered, as experience from the United States shows.
"Being downgraded is a bit like moving to 19 from 20 out of 20 in high school," S&P's Europe economist Jean-Michel Six said.
Belgium, Italy and Spain will also see further downgrades to their ratings, the vast majority of economists predicted, after being placed on warning for ratings cuts late last year.
"The rhetoric of the ratings agencies at the end of last year has been pretty clear," said Peruzzo.
"There is a situation where most of them are questioning the infrastructure of the euro zone and the ability of the policy tools available to mitigate the fall out of the crisis," Peruzzo said.
(Polling by Sumanta Dey and Ruby Cherian; Editing by John Stonestreet)