Mitchell’s Musings 7-4-16: Downgrading the Graders

01 Jul 2016 5:10 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 7-4-16: Downgrading the Graders

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

The decision of British voters on June 23rd to select the “Brexit” option was, shall we say, not carefully thought out, as noted in prior musings on this blog. It was followed –as I indicated in last week’s musing - by silly statements by various continental politicians in the EU that, given the vote, Britain should exit quickly. Now the foolishness has spread to the rating agencies:

The UK has lost its top AAA credit rating from ratings agency S&P following the country's Brexit vote. S&P said that the referendum result could lead to "a deterioration of the UK's economic performance, including its large financial services sector." Rival agency Fitch lowered its rating from AA+ to AA, forecasting an "abrupt slowdown" in growth in the short-term.

S&P had been the only major agency to maintain a (sic)AAA rating for the UK. It has now cut its rating by two notches to AA. On Friday, Moody's cut the UK's credit rating outlook to negative. A rating downgrade can affect how much it costs governments to borrow money in the international financial markets. In theory, a high credit rating means a lower interest rate (and vice versa). S&P said that the leave result would "weaken the predictability, stability, and effectiveness of policymaking in the UK."[1]

Readers may recall similar downgrades regarding American federal securities when there were U.S. crises over lifting the debt ceiling by Congress.[2] Then as now, there is a problem with such downgrades when it comes to countries such as the U.S. and U.K. What people look to rating agencies to provide is an assessment of the risk of default. What is the chance that the IOU, whatever it is, won’t be paid off according to its terms? When it comes to private-sector entities or public-sector entities below the national government level, such judgments are made based largely on financials. You look at such things as the size of the debts outstanding relative to cash on hand or to other available resources. You look at the tax base. You look at budgets. You look at overall liabilities.

But if a country borrows in its own currency – as the U.S. and the U.K. do – its national government can potentially create whatever money it needs to meet any obligation. So its ratio of cash on hand to debt is effectively infinite. Of course, there is a political risk that for one reason or another, the country will default anyway. If the central bank is constrained by some legal arrangement, then the needed money creation might not occur unless there is legislative action to undo the constraints. So political inertia or gridlock could conceivably lead to default – not because the country can’t pay it obligations – but because it won’t. However, not paying in such situations has nothing directly to do with “a deterioration of… economic performance” as it might for subnational political entities (whose tax receipts might be reduced) or for a private-sector firm (whose sales and profits might be harmed). Money creation by the national government to meet debt obligations does not depend on tax receipts or economic performance.

It might be noted in this regard that the kind of gridlock seen in the U.S. when you have divided government is unlikely to occur in the U.K. with its parliamentary system. In the U.K., you can’t have a situation in which the Parliament is in the hands of one party and the prime minister belongs to another. So even if there were some grounds for the U.S. downgrade, the case for a U.K. downgrade is even less.

Really, the agencies shouldn’t even be rating the sovereign debt of countries that borrow in their own currencies. At the subnational and private level, you can analyze such “financials” as the cash-to-debt ratio, and perhaps make judgments that “add value” for investors. But when the cash-to-debt ratios are potentially infinite, all you are doing is basing ratings in what is in the headlines. Obviously, when a British prime minister steps down and it is uncertain who will succeed him, you might say that event would "weaken the predictability, stability, and effectiveness of policymaking in the UK."  But the headlines – that there was a Brexit vote, that there is uncertainty in both British political parties concerning leadership, that EU politicians are mouthing off – are available to anyone. S&P and the other agencies are no better than anyone else in making such nonfinancial assessments based on such headlines. And the link to default on sovereign debt of those headlines is questionable.

Indeed, we have a nice empirical test available in this case. If investors thought that the probability that Britain would default had risen, as the rating agencies are telling us, then British Treasury bonds should have fallen in price after the Brexit vote and so bond yields should have risen. But what actually happened? The British Treasury publishes an index of long-term Treasury bond yields as shown below for the month of June:[3]

06/01/16              2.36%

06/02/16              2.32

06/03/16              2.24

06/06/16              2.27

06/07/16              2.25

06/08/16              2.23

06/09/16              2.20

06/10/16              2.16

06/13/16              2.15

06/14/16              2.15

06/15/16              2.14

06/16/16              2.10

06/17/16              2.14

06/20/16              2.18

06/21/16              2.22

06/22/16              2.21

06/23/16              2.27

-- Post-Brexit vote --

06/24/16              2.12

06/27/16              1.99

06/28/16              1.98

06/29/16              2.01


Yields fell (bond prices rose) after the Brexit vote. The ratings downgrades were thus seen by the market as irrelevant if not flat wrong. Put another way, the market implicitly downgraded the opinions of the rating agencies. And rightly so. When the rating agencies were caught giving high ratings to flaky mortgage securities as the 2008 financial crisis unfolded, it was said that their erroneous ratings were the product of greed. They were telling their paymasters what they wanted to hear. But this time, the only plausible explanation is that they were caught by the wider contagion of foolishness surrounding the entire Brexit affair.



[2] and

[3] (as of June 30). 

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