LONDON A lifeless economy and slow progress in cutting spending is expected to cost Britain its place among countries with top-notch credit ratings this year, a Reuters poll showed on Wednesday.
Thirty-one economists surveyed this week gave a median 60 percent chance that 2013 will see Britain lose its "AAA" rating, held since 1978, although it should avoid another recession by achieving meagre growth this quarter.
The consensus on the credit rating, however, was the most striking aspect of the survey -- the first Reuters poll since March 2010 to suggest a downgrade is on the cards.
The United States and France have had their "AAA" ratings cut without a spike in government borrowing costs, and few would expect any different for Britain.
However, a ratings cut would be a major political blow to the UK's Conservative-led government, whose Chancellor, George Osborne, made defending the rating one of his key pillars of economic policy when coming to power in 2010.
Britain has already been warned it risks losing its rating because of its finances by two of the three major ratings agencies, who will be judging the latest growth and borrowing figures.
"I think it will be very difficult for Mr Osborne to argue he is exceeding expectations on either of those counts, and so it seems very likely there will be one or more credit downgrades in the months ahead," said Stephen Lewis, chief economist at Monument Securities.
Most forecasts were collected before data showing Britain's government borrowed more than expected in December, further endangering a deficit-cutting drive that is already running two years behind target.
Last week, ratings agency Fitch said the risks of Britain losing its triple-A status are "clearly increasing", warning it could pull the trigger if the country's budget in March shows debt levels continue to rise.
Credit rating agencies were criticised after the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, because they gave hundreds of billions of dollars of what turned out to be toxic assets top marks for creditworthiness.
A "AAA" from all three major credit ratings agencies nonetheless is an enormous political cachet for sovereign borrowers that have that status, including Australia, Canada and Germany.
Last July, when Standard & Poor's affirmed the UK's top rating, Osborne said it was a sign of the world's confidence in Britain's plan cut its deficit.
BUMPING ALONG THE BOTTOM
The poll suggested British GDP declined 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, ahead of Friday's first release of official data for that period.
Analysts said there was only a one-in-three chance that will turn into a third recession in four years, dubbed by some as a "triple-dip".
But in any case, a return to substantial economic growth still looks a way off for Britain.
"I think these terms 'double-dip', 'triple dip', are really political rather than economic. Really what we're in is a depression," said Lewis at Monument, explaining how little effect monetary and fiscal policy levers have had over the last few years.
The outlook for monetary policy was little changed compared with previous polls, which have long showed interest rates on hold at a record low 0.5 percent, and the Bank of England's asset purchases capped at 375 billion pounds.
"We suspect the BoE will keep policy unchanged until more evidence on the impact of the Funding for Lending scheme is available," said Azad Zangana, economist at Schroders, referring to a programme designed to boost lending, and hopefully the economy.
(Polling and analysis by Rahul Karunakar and Snehasish Das. Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)