Sunday, August 07, 2011


Why Do We Respect the Ratings Agencies?

Will the world economy be likely to assist recovery of the UK economy? Well, there is quite a bit of slack to make up. Our economy shrank by 6.4% from January 2008 and December 2009. Since then it has managed just 2.2%. Whilst Germany's economy and even the faltering US one have recovered to 2008 levels, we are still languishing at 4% behind that benchmark.

And ONS figures show we are now flat-lining, teetering on the brink of the dreaded double dip. Unfortunately, while sterling has fallen by 25% in value, the markets we usually serve, rich developed ones, are struggling, making our plight even worse. And on top of that we see the euro-zone crisis, locked in indecision at government level, and the loss by the USA of its triple A credit rating. So I was struck by the piece by Mehdi Hasan who questions why we should be in such thrall to these self appointed, non accountable credit agencies.

In recent weeks, we have witnessed elected leaders in the world's most powerful nation dancing to the tune of David Beers. He's the moustachioed, chain-smoking head of sovereign credit ratings for S&P, the largest and arguably most influential member of the big three. "You may have never heard of David Beers but every finance minister in the world knows of him," noted Reuters in a recent – and rare – profile of the analyst, who doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. It is Beers who recently downgraded Greece's credit rating to near-junk status, thereby making the EU's proposed rescue plan much more difficult. And it is Beers who now demands the US reduce its long-term budget deficit by $4tn – rather than the congressionally approved $2.4tn – and threatens to impose the first-ever US government downgrade, from AAA to AA. It isn't just the Tea Party holding the US to ransom.

He argues that national economies should ignore these bodies, who, after all, did much to cause the 2008 crisis by giving their coveted triple A rating to all those derivatives which proved so worthless and highly toxic. Hear, hear.

Surely the whole problem is that it's not national economies that pay attention - it's banks who have to buy the debt? Given that according to national rules a certain proportion have to be prime gilts, i.e. triple A (and that's surely the real disaster of the US losing its rating, because a large proportion of debt held by banks will be US debt)?

The fact that the ratings agencies are almost unbelievably incompetent is a different problem entirely.
Thanks for that correction. I didn't know that.
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