Citing economic factors, two municipal bond rating agencies lowered their assessments of New Hampshire's more than $500 million of outstanding general obligation debt yesterday.

Fitch Investors Service dropped its AA-plus rating on New Hampshire bonds to AA, while Moody's Investors Service lowered its rating on New Hampshire's $566 million in outstanding general obligation bonds to Aa from Aa1. Standard & Poor's Corp., meanwhile, affirmed its AA rating.

The flurry of rating agency activity came in advance of New Hampshire's sale of $50 million to $60 million of general obligation capital improvement capital appreciation bonds, scheduled for the week of Nov. 18.

Fitch said in a news release that "the recession has been particularly harsh in New Hampshire, causing a loss in non-agricultural employment of nearly 4% in 1990 and further losses in 1991."

Officials at Moody's cited the recent failure of five of the state's largest banks, as well as flagging growth in personal income.

In 1991, according to Moody's Vice President Steven Hochman, the state experienced personal income growth that, at 2.7%, was anemic compared with the 10.3% average rate of the five preceding years.

For New Hampshire, which carried a pristine Aaa until March 1982, the downgradings reflect economic factors that the state cannot control despite its most austere intentions.

Last month, the state discovered that its fiscal 1992 tax revenue projections had been too rosy. Led by softening in the business profits tax, revenues overall could fall short of the projected $666 million by as much as $60 million, according to state officials.

In addition, the economic downturn has spurred growth in human services costs such as welfare, contributing to a budge gap that could reach $100 million by the June 30 end of the state's fiscal year. Unless the state acts to close the gap, fiscal 1992 could be the fourth consecutive year of fiscal imbalance.

"It's the social expenditures that are growing rapidly," Ms. Cohen said. "It's a lot harder to cut the expenditures than it is to cut the expenditures that New Hampshire has traditionally cut."

Ms. Cohen said the state's "rating stayed as high as it did because of the continued attempts [New Hampshire] has made to retain its financial balance. We still see it as high-grade, because we know that they will keep on taking steps to try to achieve balance."

According to Moody's, the action also affected at least $141 million of local bonds -- mainly consisting of the debt of the New Hampshire Municipal Bond Bank -- which are guaranteed by the state. State officials could not be reached for comment late yesterday.

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