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S&P downgrades US credit rating from AAA to AA+
WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States has lost its sterling credit rating from Standard & Poor’s.
The credit rating agency on Friday lowered the nation’s AAA rating for the first time since granting it in 1917. The move came less than a week after a gridlocked Congress finally agreed to spending cuts that would reduce the debt by more than $2 trillion – a tumultuous process that contributed to convulsions in financial markets. The promised cuts were not enough to satisfy S&P.
The drop in the rating by one notch to AA-plus was telegraphed as a possibility back in April. The three main credit agencies, which also include Moody’s Investor Service and Fitch, had warned during the budget fight that if Congress did not cut spending far enough, the country faced a downgrade. Moody’s said it was keeping its AAA rating on the nation’s debt, but that it might still lower it.
One of the biggest questions after the downgrade was what impact it would have on already nervous investors. While the downgrade was not a surprise, some selling is expected when stock trading resumes Monday morning. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 699 points this week, the biggest weekly point drop since October 2008.
“I think we will have a knee-jerk reaction on Monday,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank.
But any losses might be short-lived. The threat of a downgrade is likely already reflected in the plunge in stocks this week, said Harvey Neiman, a portfolio manager of the Neiman Large Cap Value Fund.
“The market’s already been shaken out,” Neiman said. “It knew it was coming.”
One fear in the market has been that a downgrade would scare buyers away from U.S. debt. If that were to happen, the interest rate paid on U.S. bonds, notes and bills would have to rise to attract buyers. And that could lead to higher borrowing rates for consumers, since the rates on mortgages and other loans are pegged to the yield on Treasury securities.
However, even without an AAA rating from S&P, U.S. debt is seen as one of the safest investments in the world. And investors clearly weren’t scared away this week. While stocks were plunging, investors were buying Treasurys and driving up their prices. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which falls when the price rises, fell to a low of 2.39 percent on Thursday from 2.75 percent Monday.
A study by JPMorgan Chase found that there has been a slight rise in rates when countries lost an AAA rating. In 1998, S&P lowered ratings for Belgium, Italy and Spain. A week later, their 10-year rates had barely moved.
The government fought the downgrade. Administration sources familiar with the discussions said the S&P analysis was fundamentally flawed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly. S&P had sent the administration a draft document in the early afternoon Friday and the administration, after examining the numbers, challenged the analysis.
S&P said that in addition to the downgrade, it is issuing a negative outlook, meaning that there was a chance it will lower the rating further within the next two years. It said such a downgrade, to AA, would occur if the agency sees smaller reductions in spending than Congress and the administration have agreed to make, higher interest rates or new fiscal pressures during this period.
In its statement, S&P said that it had changed its view “of the difficulties of bridging the gulf between the political parties” over a credible deficit reduction plan.
S&P said it was now “pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government’s debt dynamics anytime soon.”
One analyst suggested the downgrade might move Congress to take concrete steps to fix the nation’s budget problems.
“It’s a downgrade and it’s bad, but if it spurs more conversation about bringing down spending and maybe more intelligent tax policy, it could be a good thing in the long run,” said Frank Barbera, a portfolio manager of the Sierra Core Retirement Fund.
The Federal Reserve and other U.S. regulators said in a joint statement that S&P’s action should not have any impact on how banks and other financial institutions assess the riskiness of Treasurys or other securities guaranteed by the U.S. government. The statement was issued to make sure banks did not feel that the downgrade would affect the amount of capital that regulators require the banks to hold against possible losses.
Before leaving for a weekend at Camp David, President Barack Obama met with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in the Oval Office late Friday afternoon.
The downgrade is likely to have little to no impact on how the United States finances its borrowing, through the sale of Treasury bonds, bills and notes. This week’s buying proves that.
“Investors have voted and are saying the U.S. is going to pay them,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics. “U.S. Treasurys are still the gold standard.” He noted that neither his parent organization, Moody’s, nor Fitch, the other of the three major rating agencies, have downgraded U.S. debt.
The ratings agencies were sharply criticized after the financial crisis in 2008 for not warning investors about the risks of subprime mortgages. Those mortgages were packaged as securities and sold to investors who lost billions of dollars when the loans went bad.
Japan had its ratings cut a decade ago to AA, and it didn’t have much lasting impact. The credit ratings of both Canada and Australia have also been downgraded over time, without much lasting damage.
“I don’t think it’s going to amount to a lot,” said Peter Morici, a University of Maryland business economist.
Still, he said, “The United States deserves to have this happen,” because of its clumsy handling of fiscal policy.
In reacting to the downgrade, Democrats and Republicans continued to blame each other and pledged to hold firm to their principles.
Republican presidential candidates criticized the White House. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., called on Obama to fire Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and submit a plan to balance the budget and not just reduce future deficits. Republican candidate Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, said the credit downgrade was the “latest casualty” in Obama’s failed economic leadership.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said the American people will be closely watching the work of the 12-member joint committee that has been created to produce more than $1 trillion in additional savings over the next decade.
“The work of this committee will affect all Americans, and its deliberations should be open to the press, to the public and webcast,” she said.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said the downgrade underscored the need for a “balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines spending cuts with revenue-raising measures” such as doing away with tax breaks for the wealthy and oil companies.
Martin Crutsinger, AP Economics Writer. Tom Raum, David Espo and Julie Pace in Washington and Business Writers Chip Cutter and Pallavi Gogoi in New York contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON – The United States has never defaulted on its debt and Democrats and Republicans say they don’t want it to happen now. But with partisan acrimony running at fever pitch, and Democrats and Republicans so far apart on how to tame the deficit, the unthinkable is suddenly being pondered.
The government now borrows about 42 cents of every dollar it spends. Imagine that one day soon, the borrowing slams up against the current debt limit ceiling of $14.3 trillion and Congress fails to raise it. The damage would ripple across the entire economy, eventually affecting nearly every American, and rocking global markets in the process.
A default would come if the government actually failed to fulfill a financial obligation, including repaying a loan or interest on that loan. The government borrows mostly by selling bonds to individuals and governments, with a promise to pay back the amount of the bond in a certain time period and agreeing to pay regular interest on that bond in the meantime.
Among the first directly affected would likely be money-market funds holding government securities, banks that buy bonds directly from the Federal Reserve and resell them to consumers, including pension and mutual funds; and the foreign investor community, which holds nearly half of all Treasury securities.
If the U.S. starts missing interest or principal payments, borrowers would demand higher and higher rates on new bonds, as they did with Greece, Portugal and other heavily indebted nations. Who wants to keep loaning money to a deadbeat nation that can’t pay its bills?
At some point, the government would have to slash spending in other areas to make room for any further sales of Treasury bills and bonds. That could squeeze payments to federal contractors, and eventually even affect Social Security and other government benefit payments, as well as federal workers’ paychecks.
A default would likely trigger another financial panic like the one in 2008 and plunge an economy still reeling from high joblessness and a battered housing market back into recession. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke calls failure to raise the debt limit “a recovery-ending event.” U.S. stock markets would likely tank – devastating roughly half of U.S. households that own stocks, either individually or through 401(k) type retirement programs.
Eventually, the cost of most credit would rise – from business and consumer loans to home mortgages, auto financing and credit cards.
Continued stalemate could also further depress the value of the dollar and challenge the greenback’s status as the world’s prime “reserve currency.”
China and other countries that now hold about 50 percent of all U.S. Treasury securities could start dumping them, further pushing up interest rates and swelling the national debt. It would be a vicious cycle of higher and higher interest rates and more and more debt.
The U.S. has long been the global standard for financial stability and creditworthiness, with Treasury securities seen as a fail-safe investment. But after the near-shutdown of the U.S. government and a new credit-rating report this week questioning the country’s fiscal health, Treasury bills and bonds are losing luster.
If there is a debt limit deadlock, the government by this summer could find itself legally unable to borrow more money to pay its bills, beginning with interest on its debt and gradually extending to day-to-day federal operations. At some point, the government would have to decide which bills to pay and which to put aside.
The debt ceiling will be hit on or around May 16, the Treasury Department says. Unlike the threatened government shutdown, the impact would start slowly, but then build mightily until the damage would be so dire that few political leaders or economists even want to contemplate it. The day of reckoning could likely be delayed at least until early July with creative bookkeeping.
When the House first rejected the Bush administration’s $600-billion bank bailout in September 2008, the Dow Jones industrials went into a dizzying 778-point tailspin. A whiff of a possible similar stock market collapse came on Monday with a sharp selloff on Wall Street when the Standard & Poors lowered its outlook on U.S. debt to “negative” from “stable,” possibly a first step toward a possible downgrade of America’s coveted AAA credit rating.
“We haven’t downgraded it. We just said, if nothing happens, we may have to,” said S&P chief economist David Wyss. He said a government default remains uncharted territory, “which is one reason why it’s not a good idea to hit the debt ceiling.”
“There’s reason to worry,” said Wyss. “But my best guess is that we sort of muddle through this. Cuts will be made, they’ll be too little too late, but at least they will be enough to maintain a triple-A rating.”
“It’s another game of chicken. And this time there are Mack trucks going at each other, not bumper cars. This is a biggie,” said American University political scientist James Thurber. But he predicted that, as in the past, “there will be an accommodation. They will avoid a crash.”
Investment bank J.P. Morgan Chase recently concluded that any delay in making an interest or principal payments by the Treasury “even for a very short period of time” would have large “long-term adverse consequences for Treasury finances and the U.S. economy.” The analysis is being circulated on Capitol Hill by supporters of raising the debt limit.
“If anyone wants to push that button, which I think would be catastrophic and unpredictable, I think they’re crazy,” JP Morgan CEO Jaime Dimon said recently of those seeking to block raising the debt limit.
House Speaker John Boehner and most other GOP leaders agree on the need to raise the debt limit – and don’t want to be held responsible for a new financial meltdown. Still, they want Obama to make more concessions on spending cuts than he has done thus far. That isn’t sitting well with liberal Democrats, who think Obama has already given too much ground.
One reason the two parties can’t find common ground: they can’t even agree on what’s causing high deficits. Democrats mostly blame it on policies of George W. Bush: two wars, tax cuts that continue to benefit the wealthy and an expensive prescription drug program. Republicans see government spending as the culprit, particularly on Obama’s watch.
In fact, the main reason is the deep recession, which slashed tax revenues and led to hundreds of billions of dollars in recession-fighting spending by both Bush and Obama. The debt was $9 trillion in late 2007 before the start of the Great Recession, and it’s just a sliver under the $14.3 trillion limit today.
Even though GOP leaders say they want to avoid more economic chaos, there is a large crop of tea-party aligned Republicans threatening to refuse to raise the cap under almost any circumstance. Polls suggest a large percentage of Americans oppose raising the debt limit.
The debt limit has been raised ten times over the past decade. Obama voted against Bush’s debt-limit increase in 2006 as a senator, accusing Bush of “a leadership failure.” Obama recently apologized for “making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country.”
TOM RAUM, Associated Press