FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Will the U. S. Lose Its AAA Rating?

by DEAN BAKER

The media have been bombarding the public with scare stories about the country’s “record” budget deficits. Newspapers and news shows that never bothered to mention the growth of the $8 trillion housing bubble that eventually crashed the economy are giving us an endless barrage of stories claiming that current and projected future deficits will bankrupt our grandchildren. The implication of most of these stories is that we have to cut back Social Security and Medicare for all those high-living seniors as a matter of generational equity.

Most of these deficit stories feature a potpourri of wrong or misleading information. One item that is especially effective at raising fear levels in the public is the warnings from Moody’s, the huge bond-rating agency, that it may downgrade its rating of U.S. government debt. U.S. government debt has always held Moody’s highest AAA rating. If Moody’s were to lower the rating on government debt it would be a huge embarrassment to the country; essentially an indictment of the government’s poor financial practices. It would also have the practical effect of raising the government’s interest burden as a downgrade could lead to higher interest rates on U.S. government debt.

Before we rush to cut our parents’ Social Security and Medicare it would be worth asking a couple of questions. First, people should know a bit more about Moody’s and the other major bond-rating agencies. It would be nice to think that we had bond-rating agencies that could be trusted to examine the books of governments and businesses and tell us the truth about their financial merits. However, that is not the country in which we live.

Moody’s and the other bond-rating agencies have featured prominently in the build-up to the financial crisis. These agencies gave investment grade ratings to complex financial instruments filled with subprime mortgages and other bad assets. These ratings allowed Goldman Sachs and other investment banks to sell this trash around the country and the world, ensuring that the effects of the collapse of the housing bubble would reverberate throughout the financial system.

It was not just incompetence that caused Moody’s to misunderstand the quality of the issues it was rating; it was corruption. Moody’s and the other bond-rating agencies were getting paid by the banks whose assets that they were rating. The bond-rating agencies knew that these companies wanted investment grade ratings for their issues. As one examiner for Standard & Poor’s said in an e-mail, they would give investment grade ratings to products “structured by cows.”

This record must be kept in mind when considering the possibility of a Moody’s downgrade of U.S. government debt. It is no secret that many on Wall Street would love to see Social Security and Medicare cut back or even privatized. Investment banker Peter Peterson has even committed $1 billion toward promoting this agenda. When Moody’s threatens to downgrade U.S. government debt, or if it actually does so, it may reflect its actual assessment of the creditworthiness of the U.S. government or it could be a reflection of the Wall Street agenda to cut back these key public programs.

There is one way in which the public can better recognize Moody’s motivations. All banks, including giants such as Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, hold huge amounts of U.S. government debt. There are also reliant on the U.S. government for all sorts of reasons, including potential bailouts. If the U.S. government were to default on its debts, then it would almost certainly wipe out every major bank in the country. There is no plausible scenario in which the U.S. government defaults on its debts and the banks will still be able to make good on their debt payments.

This means that if Moody’s were to downgrade the government’s debt, to be consistent it must also downgrade the debt of Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and the other big banks. If Moody’s downgrades the government’s debt, without downgrading the debt of the big banks – or even threatens to downgrade the government’s debt without also threatening to downgrade the debt of the big banks – then it is more likely acting in pursuit of Wall Street’s political agenda than presenting its best assessment of the creditworthiness of the U.S. government.

It is unfortunate that we have to suspect a major credit-rating agency of such dishonesty, but given its track record, serious people have no choice. To paraphrase an old Winston Churchill joke, we already know about the character of the bond-rating agencies, we are only asking if they are prostituting themselves now.

DEAN BAKER is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This column was originally published by The Guardian.

 

WORDS THAT STICK

Weekend Edition
February 12-14, 2016
Andrew Levine
What Next in the War on Clintonism?
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Comedy of Terrors: When in Doubt, Bomb Syria
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh – Anthony A. Gabb
Financial Oligarchy vs. Feudal Aristocracy
Paul Street
When Plan A Meets Plan B: Talking Politics and Revolution with the Green Party’s Jill Stein
Rob Urie
The (Political) Season of Our Discontent
Pepe Escobar
It Takes a Greek to Save Europa
Gerald Sussman
Why Hillary Clinton Spells Democratic Party Defeat
Carol Norris
What Do Hillary’s Women Want? A Psychologist on the Clinton Campaign’s Women’s Club Strategy
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Election: Any Good News for Palestine?
Linda Pentz Gunter
Radioactive Handouts: the Nuclear Subsidies Buried Inside Obama’s “Clean” Energy Budget
Michael Welton
Lenin, Putin and Me
Manuel García, Jr.
Fire in the Hole: Bernie and the Cracks in the Neo-Liberal Lid
Thomas Stephens
The Flint River Lead Poisoning Catastrophe in Historical Perspective
David Rosen
When Trump Confronted a Transgender Beauty
Will Parrish
Cap and Clear-Cut
Victor Grossman
Coming Cutthroats and Parting Pirates
Ben Terrall
Raw Deals: Challenging the Sharing Economy
David Yearsley
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Formation: Form-Fitting Uniforms of Revolution and Commerce
David Mattson
Divvying Up the Dead: Grizzly Bears in a Post-ESA World
Matthew Stevenson
Confessions of a Primary Insider
Jeff Mackler
Friedrichs v. U.S. Public Employee Unions
Franklin Lamb
Notes From Tehran: Trump, the Iranian Elections and the End of Sanctions
Pete Dolack
More Unemployment and Less Security
Christopher Brauchli
The Cruzifiction of Michael Wayne Haley
Bill Quigley
Law on the Margins: a Profile of Social Justice Lawyer Chaumtoli Huq
Uri Avnery
A Lady With a Smile
Katja Kipping
The Opposite of Transparency: What I Didn’t Read in the TIPP Reading Room
B. R. Gowani
Hellish Woman: ISIS’s Granny Endorses Hillary
Kent Paterson
The Futures of Whales and Humans in Mexico
James Heddle
Why the Current Nuclear Showdown in California Should Matter to You
Michael Howard
Hollywood’s Grotesque Animal Abuse
Steven Gorelick
Branding Tradition: a Bittersweet Tale of Capitalism at Work
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s UN Victory and Redemption of the West
Patrick Bond
World Bank Punches South Africa’s Poor, by Ignoring the Rich
Mel Gurtov
Is US-Russia Engagement Still Possible?
Dan Bacher
Governor Jerry Brown Receives Cold, Dead Fish Award Four Years In A Row
Wolfgang Lieberknecht
Fighting and Protecting Refugees
Jennifer Matsui
Doglegs, An Unforgettable Film
Soud Sharabani
Israeli Myths: An Interview with Ramzy Baroud
Terry Simons
Bernie? Why Not?
Missy Comley Beattie
When Thoughtful People Think Illogically
Christy Rodgers
Everywhere is War: Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories
Ron Jacobs
Springsteen: Rockin’ the House in Albany, NY
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too
Charles R. Larson
No Brainers: When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail