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08.06.11

S&P Goes Tea Party

Math-challenged and politically driven, S&P’s Friday night credit demotion puts the ratings agency on par with the Tea Party. Zachary Karabell on why that’s dangerous.

Big headlines for a Friday night: “U.S. Loses Top Credit Rating!” Yes, as most now know, Standard & Poor’s went ahead with its warnings of the past weeks and downgraded the sovereign debt of the United States government from its pristine triple-A to a still stellar but one notch less so AA+. And after a miserable week in global equity markets that was almost as ugly as it gets, a week that began with the conclusion of a universally reviled debt-ceiling deal, the late-night downgrade was the fitting end.

The symbolism is undeniable. This is the first downgrade in history, as commentators rushed to remind us. But of course, that history goes back only to the late 1930s, when the ratings agencies began to hold sway. And S&P is the only one of the major three—Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P—to downgrade. So this was big bad news, a bad coda to a bad week, but only as news and not as a trenchant analysis of the creditworthiness of the United States or its ability to meet its debt obligations going forward.

Let’s be clear: Congress and the White House did not cover themselves with glory during the debt debate throughout July. The United States has a stalled economy and a large amount of debt. But on so many levels, this downgrade is absurd.

First there is the question of math. When S&P informed the White House of its intention to downgrade on Friday afternoon, the Treasury Department took issue with S&P’s math and claimed that their assessment of the trends of the U.S. debt burden and its ratio to GDP was off by trillions of dollars. No matter. After a brief review, the wizards at S&P went ahead and removed an A.

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A news ticker reads "Standard & Poor's downgrades US credit rating from AAA to AA+" in Times Square on August 5, 2011 in New York City. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)

Second, what’s with the fetish for a so-called proper ratio of debt-to-GDP. Academic economists have done no favors here. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have become the go-to economists for their work showing how countries that reach a 90% ratio slide into recession and see slowing growth well before. The U.S. current level according to S&P is 74% and will rise to 85% by 2021. The explanation of the downgrade closely tracks this academic logic.

Olympic judges rule on athletic aptitude, not the politics of the athletes.

I have no criticism of an academic theory about how nations function economically. But when debatable theories become the underpinnings of decisions by unelected individuals who run organizations with significant sway (sway ceded to them by governments throughout the 20th century), then we have a problem. We have a problem when that argument gives short shrift to the debt-servicing burden. The current interest rate that the U.S. government pays to service its massive debts is hovering around 2.5%, which makes interest payments as a percentage of GDP as low as they have been since the mid-1970s. Servicing the debt does not enter into the analysis, yet that and current interest rates make all the difference. Dismissing that counterargument, warning that rates will of course rise (yet even if they double, that will still leave the U.S. more than able to meet its obligations), and drawing on theories about the “right” level of debt puts S&P in a strange bedfellow alliance with the Tea Party.

The people who run the ratings agencies are welcome to their analysis, as is the Tea Party. But if Rogoff and Reinhart or the Tea Party announced that they were downgrading U.S. sovereign debt, they would be laughed for their audacity. Yet when it is one of the anointed ratings agencies, there is this sudden need to genuflect.

This is largely because covenant after covenant in both SEC rulings and institutional money management (pensions especially) dictate that many types of capital can only be invested in credit-worthy instruments as determined by Moody’s, S&P and Fitch. The downgrade doesn’t remotely begin to threaten the “investment grade” status of U.S. debt, and there is little reason to suspect that borrowing costs will go up as a result. Still, the reason we are in this situation of having to genuflect to S&P is because an entire structure of credit and investments, and the issuance and purchase of bonds above all, has been built on the shaky and questionable foundation of the ratings agencies.

The worst part of the downgrade is this: S&P spent considerable time in the body of their explanation about debt and GDP and growth. But they didn’t lead with that. That wasn’t the kicker. No, this was: “the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges.” The company assailed the Washington culture of “brinkmanship” so in display during the debt ceiling fiasco, and used that as the primary reason to take us down a notch.

Excuse me, but since when is a pristine political process a key ingredient to good credit? Are we supposed to have civil politics in order to maintain the rating? Are we supposed to have some mythic Scandinavian concord? Washington has usually been a mess, and arguably more now than ever. Nonetheless, the great distortion of the debt-ceiling imbroglio was that failure to do a deal would have led to a default. It would have led to a partial and then increasing complete shut down of the government, which would have soon enough forced a resolution. At no point would there have been insufficient tax revenue to meet the $20 billion of so in monthly interest payments on the debt, unless the crisis had gone on for months and months, which barring collective national psychosis simply could not have happened.

So S&P doesn’t feel comfortable that the American political process is conducive to dealing with long-term debt issues and so issued a downgrade. Yet S&P is a ratings agency, not a political arbiter. Olympic judges rule on athletic aptitude, not the politics of the athletes (usually). There is not a scintilla of evidence that the political process has yet impeded the ability of the United States to meet its debt obligations, even with the debt ceiling brinkmanship. The political process may indeed be contributing to the morass of the American economy, but the larger causes are the challenges of emerging economic centers and changing patterns of global commerce. Those are long-term issues that have little bearing on current ability to manage debts.

Finally, as a symbol that the United States is sliding off the rails, the downgrade is potent. It’s hard to argue with the reality that America is in a challenging moment that looks and feels a lot like decline. Whether that proves false and a new dawn awaits, we’ll find out soon enough. But the actions of S&P are part of problem and not just an independent verification that one exists.

These agencies have been elevated to heights that should not ascend; they have been chronically wrong and late in the past; and their rationale for a downgrade sounds more like a prim distaste for a dysfunctional political process that a reasoned assessment of the ability of the United States to discharge its obligations. No defense can be offered of our current political system or near-term economic prospects. But S&P—already on overreach as “neutral” judge of American creditworthiness—has no special standing to rule on the political system, and using that as a cudgel to prove their own power is a destructive act.