Archive for Sunday, August 7, 2011

U.S. downgrade raises anxiety — but what exactly does it mean?

August 7, 2011


The real danger from the downgrade of U.S. government debt by Standard & Poor’s isn’t higher interest rates. It’s the hit to the nation’s fragile economic psyche and rattled financial markets.

S&P’s decision to strip the U.S. of its sterling AAA credit rating for the first time and move it down one notch, to AA+, deals a blow to the confidence of consumers and businesses at a dangerous time, economists say.

The agency is “striking at the heart of what makes the global economy tick,” says Chris Rupkey, chief financial economists for the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ. “It isn’t just dollars and cents.”

A look at this downgrade, and downgrades in general — and what they mean:

Q: What did Standard & Poor’s do?

A: The ratings agency downgraded its rating on the federal government’s long-term debt one level from the top AAA grade to AA+. Long-term debt includes notes and bonds that come due in more than one year.

They have terms ranging from two to 30 years. Short-term debt includes Treasury bills that have terms ranging from a few days to 52 weeks.

The rating on the government’s short-term debt was not downgraded. Of the $9.4 billion in publicly traded U.S. government debt, 72 percent is long-term.

Q: What does a downgrade mean?

A: A downgrade is a warning to buyers of bonds and other debt that the chance that they won’t get their money back has increased, however slightly. In theory, downgrades should lead to higher borrowing costs for the issuer (in this case, the government), since investors demand a higher interest rate if they’re taking a bigger risk.

Q: Does it mean U.S. interest rates will go up?

A: The 10-year Treasury note is considered the basis for all other interest rates, so higher rates on that and other long-term U.S. debt could lead to borrowing costs on everything from mortgages to car loans. That would also make it more expensive for state and local governments, companies and consumers to borrow money.

But it’s not clear that S&P’s downgrade will have an effect on rates. Treasury securities are a foundation of the U.S. financial system and are still considered one of the safest investments in the world. As stocks plunged the last two weeks, the price of Treasurys soared because demand was high, even though investors knew there might be a downgrade. Since yields on debt securities fall as prices rise, the yield on the 10-year note dropped from 2.96 percent on July 22 to 2.39 percent on Friday.

A downgrade could spur a “quick jolt of nervous, knee-jerk selling” of bonds, raising rates in the short term, said Guy LeBas, chief fixed income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott. But investors are so worried about the economy and need the safety of Treasurys that they could quickly become buyers again.

Q: Wasn’t this what the debt limit agreement in Congress was supposed to prevent?

A: Yes, but S&P sees the agreement as falling short of what’s necessary to fix the nation’s finances. The spending cuts Democrats and Republicans agreed on were relatively modest. More difficult, comprehensive cuts were pushed to the future. S&P also notes that the possibility of new revenue, for instance from tax increases, appears more remote than before. The rancor around the agreement also made it more clear how far apart Democrats and Republicans are. “Our opinion is that elected officials remain wary of tackling the structural issues required to effectively address the rising U.S. public debt burden,” S&P said.

Q: What did the other ratings agencies do?

A: The two other major agencies haven’t taken action yet. Moody’s Investor Service has said it might downgrade the U.S. rating, but its chief economist noted Friday that Treasury securities “are still the gold standard.” Fitch Ratings said last week that the agreement on budget cuts was an important first step but “not the end of the process.”

Q: How many times has the U.S. been downgraded below AAA?

A: Never. The S&P has given the U.S. a AAA rating since 1941. The U.S. and has only faced the threat of a downgrade once. In 1995, when Bill Clinton was president, a similar default loomed and the credit rating agencies warned of a downgrade. At the time, the country had $4.9 trillion in debt — nearly $10 trillion less than now. Once Congress resolved that debt crisis a year later, the credit agencies removed their warning.

Q: How has a downgrade affected other countries?

A: In May 1998, S&P knocked Belgium, Italy and Spain from AAA to AA. A week later, their 10-year rates had barely budged. In some cases, fell. A week after S&P took Ireland’s AAA rating away in March 2009, 10-year rates in that country had fallen 0.18 percentage points.

Q: What other countries have AAA ratings from S&P?

A: Britain, Germany, Australia, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland are among those that have the top rating.

Q: How big is the market for U.S. government bonds?

A: At $9.3 trillion, the U.S. government bond market is massive compared with those of other countries. Daily trading of Treasurys runs at $580 billion, far higher than British gilts ($34 billion) or German bunds ($28 billion), according to a recent study by Fitch.

“I think no matter what happens, Treasurys are the safe haven,” said Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at the brokerage BTIG in New York. “No other market is as large or as liquid.”

Treasurys have a solid appeal for the world’s central banks. China’s central bank holds an estimated $1.16 trillion. Japan, the second largest foreign owner, holds $912 billion.

Fitch said the status of the U.S. dollar and the size of the Treasury market are the biggest reasons investors won’t abandon Treasurys soon. The dollar is the global reserve currency, which means a significant amount of global purchases are made in dollars — like toys and computer chips from China, coffee from Kenya, cars from Japan and oil from all over the world. Central banks in other countries therefore hold large reserves of U.S. currency, mostly through Treasury purchases.

Q: How long might it take for the U.S. to regain a AAA rating?

A: Analysts say it could be tough for the U.S. to regain the AAA rating soon especially given its current economic challenges. S&P officials implied that it will take years to see a meaningful change in the U.S. fiscal situation and in the government’s ability to cut the budget.


Paul R Getto 2 years, 8 months ago

S&P is paying them back for pointing out they mised the last crash. S&P is trying to point out we cannot cut our way out of the mess and new taxes (on someone or something) are needed. The 'cuts' in the new budget deal are laughable and way too small. S&P is playing a bit of Shakespeare too: "A plague o' both your houses." (Romeo and Juliet)


hootyhooty 2 years, 8 months ago

It means after looking at our portfolio a few minutes ago, my utter contempt for Obama and Pelosi and Reid has just increased 10 fold. Thanks O/P/R, thanks a heap.


ShePrecedes 2 years, 8 months ago

End CItiGroup. Japan doesn't (or didn't) allow them on their shores (money-laundering crimes). Why should we?


ShePrecedes 2 years, 8 months ago

I just feel so perfectly relaxed about this issue. I see it as a culling out of the rich and greedy, a culling out of the power-mongering banks that have brought this country to one depression and perhaps another. What we need to do is learn from this, and never again allow a bank to become as large and as powerful as they have.

Of course, I sit here, not owing anyone anything. I am one of those traditional Conservatives that are no longer popular in today's strangely-morphed GOP.

In the market that is criminal to the core of it's very functioning, this is a healthful culling as well. The market begs for heavy regulation, with public and private oversight orgs to make sure that the market functions not as a institution for gun-running and/or drug money laundering (which it is today, at present), but as a institution that demonstrates real national wealth and prosperity of The People, without the hedge fund manipulations. Stock shorting should be completely and entirely outlawed, as it is in other countries.

Regulate businesses, especially those who do not pay much in taxes. Do not (!) regulate The People.


Crazy_Larry 2 years, 8 months ago

Page 4, last paragraph of the S&P's report:

"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."


Jayhawk1963 2 years, 8 months ago

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Daffy 2 years, 8 months ago

S&P must be racists. Now China wants to dump the dollar. They must be racists too.


jmadison 2 years, 8 months ago

  1. The Federal Reserve has been buying the majority of the federal debt for the past year, artificially lowering the interest rates on Treasury debt, and pumping up the profits of the big Wall Street Banks.
  2. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan investment banks sold bundled mortgages that they knew were dross to the public, but were rated AAA by the ratings agencies.
  3. Sen. Dodd and Rep. Frank protected Fannie Mae from any meaningful oversight, and were rewarded with being able to put their name on the Dodd-Frank consumer protection bill.
  4. Fannie Mae is draining about $8 billion per month from the Treasury to prop up their operations.
  5. Bush overspent and Obama has doubled down by increasing the debt.

No Wall Street or Fannie Mae employees have gone to jail.

America has been turned into one giant Potemkinville, and our elite class--politicians, Wall Street brokerages, and bureaucrats-- bear no responsibility. Its a sad commentary on what America has become courtesy of our political class.


Crazy_Larry 2 years, 8 months ago

Wait a minute! Isn't the S&P one of the ratings agencies that brought down the world's economies by giving AAA ratings to junk derivatives? Yeah, yep, yes they are! This game is rigged!


camper 2 years, 8 months ago

"But it’s not clear that S&P’s downgrade will have an effect on rates. Treasury securities are a foundation of the U.S. financial system and are still considered one of the safest investments in the world. As stocks plunged the last two weeks, the price of Treasurys soared because demand was high, even though investors knew there might be a downgrade. Since yields on debt securities fall as prices rise, the yield on the 10-year note dropped from 2.96 percent on July 22 to 2.39 percent on Friday."

We may have dodged a bullet. This is good because if T-Bill rates go up, so will the interest we pay on our debt (which of course much of which will go to our large creditor China).


smitty 2 years, 8 months ago

Our biggest loaner is China . China has a lower rating(AA) than the USA. go figure.

Time for that revolution yet?


thuja 2 years, 8 months ago

We should have let these guys crash and burn in '08.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 8 months ago

S&P and the USA: Right's 'Madness' and Agency's Ineptitude Led to Downgrade by Paul Krugman

NEW YORK - OK, so Standard and Poors has gone ahead with the threatened downgrade. It’s a strange situation.

On one hand, there is a case to be made that the madness of the right has made America a fundamentally unsound nation. And yes, it is the madness of the right: if not for the extremism of anti-tax Republicans, we would have no trouble reaching an agreement that would ensure long-run solvency.

On the other hand, it’s hard to think of anyone less qualified to pass judgment on America than the rating agencies. The people who rated subprime-backed securities are now declaring that they are the judges of fiscal policy? Really?

Just to make it perfect, it turns out that S&P got the math wrong by $2 trillion, and after much discussion conceded the point — then went ahead with the downgrade.

More than that, everything I’ve heard about S&P’s demands suggests that it’s talking nonsense about the US fiscal situation. The agency has suggested that the downgrade depended on the size of agreed deficit reduction over the next decade, with $4 trillion apparently the magic number. Yet US solvency depends hardly at all on what happens in the near or even medium term: an extra trillion in debt adds only a fraction of a percent of GDP to future interest costs, so a couple of trillion more or less barely signifies in the long term. What matters is the longer-term prospect, which in turn mainly depends on health care costs.

So what was S&P even talking about? Presumably they had some theory that restraint now is an indicator of the future — but there’s no good reason to believe that theory, and for sure S&P has no authority to make that kind of vague political judgment.

In short, S&P is just making stuff up — and after the mortgage debacle, they really don’t have that right.

So this is an outrage — not because America is A-OK, but because these people are in no position to pass judgment.


ksrush 2 years, 8 months ago

Flat tax, cut spending and problem solved


Richard Heckler 2 years, 8 months ago

When will democrats learn four things?

  1. Following the economic direction of Tea Party Neoconservative Christian Fundamentalists frustrates the entire planet.

  2. That government MUST step up to the plate = establish a major 3 year job program that does not include USA industry and USA banks yet will employ millions upon millions. Banks and USA industry DO NOT want to employ Americans.

  3. I want my tax dollars putting people to work making money and creating new economic growth. This is a best bang for the tax buck. Rehabilitate federal highways, rehab sidewalks in every community = healthy for Americans and bring on clean collar employment.

  4. Congress always forget USA industry has been screwing americans and our economy in a big way since 1980.

Retaining Bush tax cuts,not saving $4 trillion and putting forth zero job bills obviously was not the answer.

Neither Tea Party neoconservative republicans nor democrats stepped up to the plate

What was missing from the deal? A budget that would have saved $4 trillion.

Plus Millions of new jobs that would create new economic growth and the “Peoples Budget” that which does everything this country needs:

* Creates good-paying jobs
* Fully maintains our social safety net
* Invests in education
* Ends our costly wars
* Closes the tax loopholes that have made offshoring jobs profitable
* Ends oil and gas subsidies that pollute our country at taxpayer expense
* Creates a national infrastructure investment bank to help us make intelligent investments for the future

The “People's Budget” represents not just common sense; it represents the will of the American people.

What the “Peoples Budget” does very specifically:,70


Richard Heckler 2 years, 8 months ago

The largest obstacles are fear of losing special interest campaign money, guts to terminate Bush tax cuts and backbone to cut off pork barrel corporate subsidies. This crop of 2012 candidates are and will be no different.

Blame USA industry for China. No one forced USA industry to move off shore. We always forget USA industry has been screwing americans and our economy in a big way since 1980.

Blame corp america every day they employ chinese workers over USA workers!

The remedy:

One answer to problems such as this: CUT OFF special interest financing of elections! YES even at the local level.

Our government is always claiming the USA is about democracy. In that case allow the citizens to practice democracy by allowing citizens to vote in these measures come 2012:

Let's demand a new system and vote in Fair Vote America : Demand a change on the next ballot.

Let's have public financing of campaigns. Citizens cannot afford special interest money campaigns for it is the citizens that get left out. Let citizens vote on this issue.

Bribery of elected officials is the most stinky of all bribery!


Machete 2 years, 8 months ago

It means Obama rides a bus like Palin did. Obama is no dummy. Palin took a bus tour so Obama is taking a bus tour.


Crazy_Larry 2 years, 8 months ago

Seems like the corporations are controlling the government! LOL! We the People! Get it? Corporations are people too! ROFL!


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