The U.S. economy could be hurt by Lehman-like financial contagion if the eurozone debt crisis engulfs major European countries such as Italy, Moody's Investors Service said.
That is still not the assumption adopted by the ratings agency, which expects the economy to grow between 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent in 2012.
Moody's has warned, however, that any significant departure from that growth range could have implications for the United States' Aaa rating.
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"Any contagion coming from what's going on in Europe now would have to come through the banking system primarily," Steven Hess, Moody's chief U.S. analyst, said at the Reuters Washington Summit.
That contagion, Hess said, would probably be similar to what happened at the time of the Lehman bankruptcy in 2008, when banks suddenly became less willing to lend to each other, freezing up financing lines to companies and individuals.
So far, he noted, the interbank market has become only marginally tighter as "some banks are less willing to lend because they're trying to prepare themselves for write-offs coming from Greek sovereign debt and whatever comes next."
"If, however, the crisis becomes much worse and includes Italy for example — and this is all if, not a forecast from the part of Moody's — if that were to happen you could see the financial system in the United States ... suddenly suffer problems," Hess said.
Those problems, he explained, would likely be triggered by a freeze-up of the global interbank market rather than direct exposure of U.S. banks to bonds issued by Greece, Italy, or any troubled European country.
"We believe that U.S. banks are much stronger now than they were at time of Lehman so you wouldn't have a repeat of the government bailouts and all of the things that happened at that time," Hess said.
Moody's currently has a negative outlook on the United States, which means it could be the second rating agency to strip the country from its triple-A rating after Standard & Poor's.
Hess again signaled, however, that the agency is willing to wait until at least the end of 2012 to make that decision — based on events such as the "policy environment" resulting from the presidential election, the budget for the 2013 fiscal year, and the future of Bush-era tax cuts.
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