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We Warned You About S&P Too

This article originally appeared in the Daily Capitalist.

In April, 2010, S&P warned us that we were on their watch list for a potential downgrade. At that time we wrote an article entitled, "American Exceptionalism and Standard & Poor's" in which we said:

America, the world’s greatest country, whose financial strength and dollar were supreme for the past 100 years, has been put on notice by Standard & Poor’s that it is on the road to second rate status. It was disconcerting to read the ho-hum reactions of economists to S&P’s shift to a negative outlook for U.S. sovereign debt. As one who sees darker implications of a downgrade in Treasurys, it gave me pause to wonder if I am overreacting to the event. Perhaps they are correct in that it will probably not happen, and that if it does, it’s no big deal because the dollar still is the world’s reserve currency. Japan and Great Britain did it and they are fine. And where else would investors go?

 My conclusion is that the other 99 guys are out of step. My fellow analysts are mired so deep in the trees that they overlook the forest of reasons why we got into this mess in the first place. The problem with economic analysis and analysts is that there is a tendency of disassembly. By breaking down the problem into its parts one can miss how they all connect. Perhaps if they stepped back and considered where this country is heading they would be less sanguine.

 After all, we are not looking at a single event but a series of political decisions made over the past 15 years or so that have created today’s budget crisis. And stepping back even farther, we are experiencing fundamental changes in American culture. The well-worn cliché of the large ocean tanker taking miles to change course is an accurate depiction of our situation. There is so much built-in momentum based on entitlements and defense spending it is unlikely that a crisis can be avoided.

 Our economic and policy experts need to focus on this long-term problem rather than just its short-term effects. Unless we deal with the fundamental problems, today’s jury-rigged fixes will not stop our continued downward spiral.
...

What does this mean for America and S&P? It means we are likely to experience a downgrade in our sovereign debt at some point in the future. Don’t ask me to predict when this will happen. There are too many “what ifs.” 

Nothing has changed since then, and we have consistently insisted that despite the budget deal, we would be downgraded. This afternoon, well after the markets closed, a Friday, S&P announced that they were downgrading the United States of America to AA+, one notch below our fabled AAA rating held for 70 years.

In an another article written on July 30, What Would Happen If the U.S. Defaults, we compiled all the information we could find describing what a default on U.S. sovereign debt would mean. My conclusion on the short-term:

 A some days of uncertainty, market drops, rates go up 20 to 50 bps,  media hysteria, bargain hunting, market surges, Treasurys stabilize, rates moderate after some weeks as money chases Treasurys again.

While our pig may still be prettier than the other pigs, with the U.S. dollar as the reserve currency, we aren’t like Argentina or Japan, and it’s not just a bump in the road. We don't know the full implications ... yet.

As for the longer-term impact, in the "American Exceptionalism" article we concluded:

A downgrade means that there will be less money available to the government for its programs. It means that debt service costs will rise. It means the Treasury will find it more difficult to place U.S. debt. It means that many holder of our debt will try to unload their positions (it won’t be easy for them). It means the Fed will likely acquire more Treasurys, effectively monetizing the debt and this monetary inflation will lead to price inflation. It means that the dollar will decline further. It means there will be pressure on the government to raise taxes further. It also means that inflation will be employed as an additional tool of fiscal policy as rising prices (actually devalued dollars) will allow the government to repay debt with cheaper dollars.

The story behind their rating call was quite interesting – they made a "slight" error:

Around 1:30 p.m. [Friday], S&P officials notified the Treasury Department that they planned to downgrade U.S. debt and presented the government with their findings. Treasury officials noticed a $2 trillion error in S&P's math that delayed an announcement for several hours. S&P officials decided to move ahead, and after 8 p.m. they made their downgrade official.

As would be expected the Treasury is now saying: "A judgment flawed by a $2 trillion error speaks for itself."

S&P officials acknowledged the error Treasury pointed out but didn't believe it was so significant. It was a technical error, though it could have serious implications. It concerned the future ratio of U.S. debt to the size of the economy, with S&P officials projecting a larger share than many experts.

What a ride. Watch for more messenger shooting as this thing unfolds. And what will Moody's and Fitch do?

* * * * *

For those of you wishing to read S&P's justification, here is their rationale, below. Their complete report is available as a PDF download here

We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process. We also believe that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration agreed to this week falls short of the amount that we believe is necessary to stabilize the general government debt burden by the middle of the decade.

 Our lowering of the rating was prompted by our view on the rising public debt burden and our perception of greater policymaking uncertainty, consistent with our criteria (see "Sovereign Government Rating Methodology and Assumptions," June 30, 2011, especially Paragraphs 36-41). Nevertheless, we view the U.S. federal government's other economic, external, and monetary credit attributes, which form the basis for the sovereign rating, as broadly unchanged. We have taken the ratings off CreditWatch because the Aug. 2 passage of the Budget Control Act Amendment of 2011 has removed any perceived immediate threat of payment default posed by delays to raising the government's debt ceiling. In addition, we believe that the act provides sufficient clarity to allow us to evaluate the likely course of U.S. fiscal policy for the next few years.

 The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year's wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and, as we see it, the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently. Republicans and Democrats have only been able to agree to relatively modest savings on discretionary spending while delegating to the Select Committee decisions on more comprehensive measures. It appears that for now, new revenues have dropped down on the menu of policy options. In addition, the plan envisions only minor policy changes on Medicare and little change in other entitlements, the containment of which we and most other independent observers regard as key to long-term fiscal sustainability.

 Our opinion is that elected officials remain wary of tackling the structural issues required to effectively address the rising U.S. public debt burden in a manner consistent with a 'AAA' rating and with 'AAA' rated sovereign peers (see Sovereign Government Rating Methodology and Assumptions," June 30, 2011, especially Paragraphs 36-41). In our view, the difficulty in framing a consensus on fiscal policy weakens the government's ability to manage public finances and diverts attention from the debate over how to achieve more balanced and dynamic economic growth in an era of fiscal stringency and private-sector deleveraging (ibid). A new political consensus might (or might not) emerge after the 2012 elections, but we believe that by then, the government debt burden will likely be higher, the needed medium-term fiscal adjustment potentially greater, and the inflection point on the U.S. population's demographics and other age-related spending drivers closer at hand (see "Global Aging 2011: In The U.S., Going Gray Will Likely Cost Even More Green, Now," June 21, 2011).

 Standard & Poor's takes no position on the mix of spending and revenue measures that Congress and the Administration might conclude is appropriate for putting the U.S.'s finances on a sustainable footing. The act calls for as much as $2.4 trillion of reductions in expenditure growth over the 10 years through 2021. These cuts will be implemented in two steps: the $917 billion agreed to initially, followed by an additional $1.5 trillion that the newly formed Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is supposed to recommend by November 2011. The act contains no measures to raise taxes or otherwise enhance revenues, though the committee could recommend them.

 The act further provides that if Congress does not enact the committee's recommendations, cuts of $1.2 trillion will be implemented over the same time period. The reductions would mainly affect outlays for civilian discretionary spending, defense, and Medicare. We understand that this fall-back mechanism is designed to encourage Congress to embrace a more balanced mix of expenditure savings, as the committee might recommend.

 We note that in a letter to Congress on Aug. 1, 2011, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated total budgetary savings under the act to be at least $2.1 trillion over the next 10 years relative to its baseline assumptions. In updating our own fiscal projections, with certain modifications outlined below, we have relied on the CBO's latest "Alternate Fiscal Scenario" of June 2011, updated to include the CBO assumptions contained in its Aug. 1 letter to Congress. In general, the CBO's "Alternate Fiscal Scenario" assumes a continuation of recent Congressional action overriding existing law.

 We view the act's measures as a step toward fiscal consolidation. However, this is within the framework of a legislative mechanism that leaves open the details of what is finally agreed to until the end of 2011, and Congress and the Administration could modify any agreement in the future. Even assuming that at least $2.1 trillion of the spending reductions the act envisages are implemented, we maintain our view that the U.S. net general government debt burden (all levels of government combined, excluding liquid financial assets) will likely continue to grow. Under our revised base case fiscal scenario--which we consider to be consistent with a 'AA+' long-term rating and a negative outlook--we now project that net general government debt would rise from an estimated 74% of GDP by the end of 2011 to 79% in 2015 and 85% by 2021. Even the projected 2015 ratio of sovereign indebtedness is high in relation to those of peer credits and, as noted, would continue to rise under the act's revised policy settings.

 Compared with previous projections, our revised base case scenario now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act. Key macroeconomic assumptions in the base case scenario include trend real GDP growth of 3% and consumer price inflation near 2% annually over the decade. Our revised upside scenario--which, other things being equal, we view as consistent with the outlook on the 'AA+' long-term rating being revised to stable--retains these same macroeconomic assumptions. In addition, it incorporates $950 billion of new revenues on the assumption that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for high earners lapse from 2013 onwards, as the Administration is advocating. In this scenario, we project that the net general government debt would rise from an estimated 74% of GDP by the end of 2011 to 77% in 2015 and to 78% by 2021.

 Our revised downside scenario--which, other things being equal, we view as being consistent with a possible further downgrade to a 'AA' long-term rating--features less-favorable macroeconomic assumptions, as outlined below and also assumes that the second round of spending cuts (at least $1.2 trillion) that the act calls for does not occur. This scenario also assumes somewhat higher nominal interest rates for U.S. Treasuries. We still believe that the role of the U.S. dollar as the key reserve currency confers a government funding advantage, one that could change only slowly over time, and that Fed policy might lean toward continued loose monetary policy at a time of fiscal tightening. Nonetheless, it is possible that interest rates could rise if investors re-price relative risks. As a result, our alternate scenario factors in a 50 basis point (bp)-75 bp rise in 10-year bond yields relative to the base and upside cases from 2013 onwards. In this scenario, we project the net public debt burden would rise from 74% of GDP in 2011 to 90% in 2015 and to 101% by 2021.

 Our revised scenarios also take into account the significant negative revisions to historical GDP data that the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced on July 29. From our perspective, the effect of these revisions underscores two related points when evaluating the likely debt trajectory of the U.S. government. First, the revisions show that the recent recession was deeper than previously assumed, so the GDP this year is lower than previously thought in both nominal and real terms. Consequently, the debt burden is slightly higher. Second, the revised data highlight the sub-par path of the current economic recovery when compared with rebounds following previous post-war recessions. We believe the sluggish pace of the current economic recovery could be consistent with the experiences of countries that have had financial crises in which the slow process of debt deleveraging in the private sector leads to a persistent drag on demand. As a result, our downside case scenario assumes relatively modest real trend GDP growth of 2.5% and inflation of near 1.5% annually going forward.

 When comparing the U.S. to sovereigns with 'AAA' long-term ratings that we view as relevant peers--Canada, France, Germany, and the U.K.--we also observe, based on our base case scenarios for each, that the trajectory of the U.S.'s net public debt is diverging from the others. Including the U.S., we estimate that these five sovereigns will have net general government debt to GDP ratios this year ranging from 34% (Canada) to 80% (the U.K.), with the U.S. debt burden at 74%. By 2015, we project that their net public debt to GDP ratios will range between 30% (lowest, Canada) and 83% (highest, France), with the U.S. debt burden at 79%. However, in contrast with the U.S., we project that the net public debt burdens of these other sovereigns will begin to decline, either before or by 2015.

 Standard & Poor's transfer T&C assessment of the U.S. remains 'AAA'. Our T&C assessment reflects our view of the likelihood of the sovereign restricting other public and private issuers' access to foreign exchange needed to meet debt service. Although in our view the credit standing of the U.S. government has deteriorated modestly, we see little indication that official interference of this kind is entering onto the policy agenda of either Congress or the Administration. Consequently, we continue to view this risk as being highly remote.