The Corner

Why The Downgrade Now?

Writing in the Atlantic, Daniel Indiviglio asks why S&P has decided to act now. Here’s a key section: 

S&P was not happy with the $2.2 trillion minimum debt reduction plan. That’s understandable. A bigger deal would certainly have been preferable from a fiscal soundness standpoint. But does the agency really estimate that the deal is is so dangerously small that there’s a realistic chance that the U.S. could now default at some point in the future? In particular, does U.S. debt really look significantly riskier now than it did in, say, April? 

The bond market certainly doesn’t think so. Treasury yields are near all-time lows, despite all that political nonsense. And remember, the interest the U.S. pays on its debt is far, far smaller than its tax revenues. If the Treasury prioritizes interest payments, then there’s no conceivable way the U.S. could default.I defended S&P’s initial decision to put the U.S. rating on negative watch back in May when politics were becoming poisonous. But to actually downgrade the U.S. after Washington managed to avoid its self-created crisis is another story. S&P should have acted like the other agencies and affirmed the U.S. rating, but kept it on negative watch until more deficit reduction plans were put in place over the next couple of years, as I explain here. 

In fact, this might not turn out well for S&P. The firm might think it’s acting boldly or proactively. Instead, the market may question S&P’s reasoning skills. The rating agency is acting here on an assumption not shared by its peers at Moody’s and Fitch: that U.S. politics are so screwed up that they could render the nation unable to live up to its debt obligations. That’s despite pretty much everyone agreeing that the nation will be financially able to pay for its debt in the short-, medium-, and long-term.  

Well, we might debate that “long-term”, but the questions Mr. Indiviglio raises are worth considering. 

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