(Bloomberg News) Italy's credit rating was cut by Moody's Investors Service for the first time in almost two decades on concern the government will struggle to reduce the region's second-largest debt amid chronically weak growth.

Moody's lowered Italy's rating three levels to A2 from Aa2, with a negative outlook, the New York-based company said in a statement today. The action comes after Standard & Poor's downgraded Italy on Sept. 20 for the first time in five years. Italy was last cut by Moody's in May 1993.

Italy gave final approval this month to a 54 billion-euro ($72 billion) austerity plan aimed at balancing the budget in 2013 that convinced the European Central Bank to buy the nation's bonds. While the purchases initially brought down bond yields by about 100 basis points, Italy's borrowing costs remain near record highs because of euro-area debt crisis contagion.

"The fragile market sentiment that continues to surround euro area sovereigns with high levels of debt implies materially increased financing costs and funding risks for Italy," Moody's said in the statement. "Although future policy actions within the euro area could reduce investors' concerns and stabilize funding markets, the opposite is also increasingly possible."

The yield on Italy's 10-year notes was at 5.49 percent today, pushing the difference investors to hold Italian bonds instead of benchmark German bunds to 376 basis points. The cost of insuring Italian debt against default has more than double the level at the start of the year.

Italy joined Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus and Greece as euro-region countries whose credit rating has been cut this year. Unlike Ireland and Portugal, which followed Greece in seeking bailouts from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, Italy had until this summer managed to skirt the worst of the fallout from the debt crisis.

Today's downgrade by Moody's may aggravate a volatile political situation. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, battling to keep his ruling coalition together, faces four trials and calls from Italian employers, his long-time backers, to step down after a decade of virtually no economic growth undermined debt reduction. Italy's debt of about 120 percent of gross domestic product is second in the region only to Greece.

S&P in May and Moody's in June warned that they may downgrade Italy, saying the government may miss fiscal targets. Moody's extended its review of Italy for one month on Sept. 16, four days before S&P cited growth concerns and Berlusconi's "fragile" government as reasons for its downgrade.

Italy's economy expanded an average 0.2 percent annually from 2001 to 2010, compared with 1.1 percent in the euro area. Gross domestic product grew 0.3 percent in the second quarter from the three months through March, when it grew 0.1 percent, national statistics institute Istat said on Sept. 9.

On Sept. 20, the International Monetary Fund cut its growth forecast for Italy, saying it will miss its goal of erasing the deficit. Two days later, the government cut its own forecast, while keeping its commitment for a balanced budget in 2013.