Why Congress and S&P Deserve Each Other

Having Standard & Poor’s downgrade the creditworthiness of the U.S., and warn the country about further downgrades, is a little like having the Catholic Church lecture Scout leaders on the proper behavior toward boys. The moral authority seems to be wanting. S&P, you may recall, is one of the ratings agencies (the others being Moody’s and Fitch) that greased the skids of the financial crisis by awarding AAA ratings to tranche after tranche of mortgage bonds called collaterized debt obligations, or CDOs.

Recall that, unlike U.S. Treasuries, backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S., CDOs were underwritten by garbage mortgages — that is, backed by no-documentation “liar loans” and other Alt-A subprime pond scum handed to borrowers who otherwise couldn’t get a nickel’s worth of credit at their local dry cleaner. S&P stamped CDOs with the same grade it previously awarded to a precious few companies, including Exxon and Microsoft. More than 30,000 CDOs got the AAA blessing from the agencies. S&P couldn’t pull its snout out of the trough even when it became apparent in 2007 that the mortgage bond pig-out was over. This e-mail from an S&P employee, uncovered by a congressional investigation, says it all: “Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.” In their absorbing history of the financial crisis, The Devils Are All Here, Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera bared the behavior of the agencies.

Even when their own analysts began sounding the alarm, senior management refused to stop the money machine. And if the analysts became insistent on being scrupulous, the agencies got new analysts. Why? Because their clients, big banks such as Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs, demanded that the CDO machine keep on cranking, until it utterly collapsed.

And let’s be clear: this was all perfectly legal. “S&P’s ratings do not speak to the market value of a security or the volatility of its price, and they are not recommendations to buy, sell or hold a security. They simply provide a tool for investors to use as they assess risk and differentiate credit quality of obligors and the debt they issue,” testified Rodney Clark, head of ratings services for S&P, to the House subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance and Government-Sponsored Enterprises. In other words, you can’t take our word to the bank, but you can take it to the poorhouse.

When investors like the Wyoming state pension system sued after many of the CDOs crashed in value, the industry stuck to this “It’s just our opinion” defense and won. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last August that the agencies were not “underwriters” or “control persons” even if they were in bed with them. The fundamental contradiction of the industry is that the companies that issue the securities pay the ratings agencies for their grades; independence is always suspect, and the courts upheld that.

One of many ironies of the S&P downgrade is that the three ratings agencies have so much power because the federal government, in the form of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), handed it to them. As former TIME writer Barbara Kiviat pointed out in this space, the power of the big ratings agencies dates to the post-Depression era, when the government increasingly relied on them to bless new issues for credit-wary investors. Then, in 1975, the SEC iced the cake, designating a number of companies as “nationally recognized statistical rating organizations,” or NRSROs. If you were not an NRSO as a ratings agency, you were SOL. Why would anyone issue bonds rated by an agency that wasn’t government-approved? The SEC designation had the unintended effect of creating a market lock for the bigger firms. That S&P would slap the hand that legitimizes it is wonderfully perverse given last week’s debt deal. The Tea Party supposedly hates Wall Street so much that it ignored warnings that its Taliban economic policy — threatening to decapitate the economy unless it got its way on spending cuts — would spook the markets, since the Street abhors uncertainty. For a moment, it looked as if the Tea team won, in that the market didn’t tank as the deal wrangling went on and on. Instead, the market cratered post-deal, as the compromised compromise left so much up in the air. Republicans had been chastising the Obama Administration for creating uncertainty, yet they allowed their own radical wing to impose it for the foreseeable future. (Clearly, uncertainty about the resolution of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis contributed to the market troubles too.) So S&P in effect fired a shot across the Tea Party’s bow: You mess with Wall Street, you will be punished. It had another for Obama: Lead, follow or get out of the way. And the two parties blamed each other. “It happened on your watch, Mr. President,” screamed Michele Bachmann, exhibiting the full extent of her knowledge of economics. In making its decision, S&P said the downgrade “reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.”

Here’s the other laughable irony: Congress had a chance to rein in the ratings agencies but demurred. Even though the statutory authority that gave S&P, Moody’s and Fitch an oligopoly on ratings was complicit in their contribution to the crisis, Congress nevertheless refused to remove the NRSRO status. The solons bought the idea that smaller agencies would be crushed if an unfettered free market were imposed on the ratings industry. Funny, that didn’t happen in the airline industry when it was deregulated. And by the way, can you name the fourth, fifth or sixth largest ratings agency? Republicans, heeding the deregulation call of their banking clients (whose demands for deregulation more than a decade ago, blessed by the Clinton Administration, led us down the path to the crisis), bent over backward to defang the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was central to the Dodd-Frank bill, whose hilarious formal name is the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Wall Street, having blown trillions during the crisis, demanded not to be hampered by either reform or consumer protection as it recovered from the crisis. Why should the ratings agencies be so encumbered?

So here’s our reward, America: higher costs for our mortgages and higher costs for the federal, state and local governments to borrow. As Fareed Zakaria points out in TIME’s Aug. 15 cover story, a jump of a single percentage point in the interest rate the federal government pays will more than wipe out the savings anticipated by the debt deal. Nice work, that. And we owe it all to an ethically and intellectually suspect ratings agency. (S&P even made a $2.1 trillion error in its calculations but dismissed it as “nonmaterial.”) Yet it has occurred to me that maybe S&P has a point. After all, this is a Congress that let the banking industry run amok, bailed it out with access to trillions of dollars of credit and has since done precious little to ensure that the process won’t be repeated. Nor would Congress reform the ratings industry, which played a vital role in the crisis. Nor did it agree to a deal worked out between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner that would have preserved the AAA rating. If our Congress is that dumb, perhaps we deserved the downgrade.

S.& P. Cuts U.S. Debt Rating for First Time

WASHINGTON — Standard & Poor’s removed the United States government from its list of risk-free borrowers for the first time on Friday night, a downgrade that is freighted with symbolic significance but carries few clear financial implications.

Political gridlock may have resulted in the downgrade in the country’s credit rating.

standard and poorsThe company, one of three major agencies that offer advice to investors in debt securities, said it was cutting its rating of long-term federal debt to AA+, one notch below the top grade of AAA. It described the decision as a judgment about the nation’s leaders, writing that “the gulf between the political parties” had reduced its confidence in the government’s ability to manage its finances.

“The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenge,” the company said in a statement.

The Obama administration reacted with indignation, noting that the company had made a significant mathematical mistake in a document that it provided to the Treasury Department on Friday afternoon, overstating the federal debt by about $2 trillion.

“A judgment flawed by a $2 trillion error speaks for itself,” a Treasury spokeswoman said.

The downgrade could lead investors to demand higher interest rates from the federal government and other borrowers, raising costs for governments, businesses and home buyers. But many analysts say the impact could be modest, in part because the other ratings agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, have decided not to downgrade the government at this time.

The announcement came after markets closed for the weekend, but there was no evidence of any immediate disruption. A spokesman for the Federal Reserve said the decision would not affect the ability of banks to borrow money by pledging government debt as collateral, a statement that could set the tone for the reaction of the broader market.

S.& P. had prepared investors for the downgrade announcement with a series of warnings earlier this year that it would act if Congress did not agree to increase the government’s borrowing limit and adopt a long-term plan for reducing its debts by at least $4 trillion over the next decade.

Earlier this week, President Obama signed into law a Congressional compromise that raised the debt ceiling but reduced the debt by at least $2.1 trillion.

On Friday, the company notified the Treasury that it planned to issue a downgrade after the markets closed, and sent the department a copy of the announcement, which is a standard procedure.

A Treasury staff member noticed the $2 trillion mistake within the hour, according to a department official. The Treasury called the company and explained the problem. About an hour later, the company conceded the problem but did not indicate how it planned to proceed, the official said. Hours later, S.& P. issued a revised release with new numbers but the same conclusion.

In a statement early Saturday morning, Standard & Poor’s said the difference could be attributed to a “change in assumptions” in its methodology but that it had “no impact on the rating decision.”

In a release on Friday announcing the downgrade, it warned that the government still needed to make progress in paying its debts to avoid further downgrades.

“The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics,” it said.

The credit rating agencies have been trying to restore their credibility after missteps leading to the financial crisis. A Congressional panel called them “essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction” after their wildly optimistic models led them to give top-flight reviews to complex mortgage securities that later collapsed. A downgrade of federal debt is the kind of controversial decision that critics have sometimes said the agencies are unwilling to make.

On the other hand, S.& P. is acting in the face of evidence that investors consider Treasuries among the safest investments in the world. Yields rose before the Congressional deal on fears of default and a possible downgrade. But after a deal was struck, yields sank as money poured into Treasuries as a safe haven from sharply falling stocks and the turmoil of the European debt markets.

 On Friday, the price of Treasuries fell sharply in heavy selling, and yields rose, reversing the moves of recent sessions. The 10-year Treasury note ended the day with a yield of 2.56 percent.

The United States has maintained the highest credit rating for decades. S.& P. first designated it AAA in 1941, reflecting a steadfast belief that the richest nation in the world would not default on its debt payments. The rating was also bolstered by the role of the dollar as the world’s leading currency, ensuring that demand for American debt securities would remain strong in spite of burgeoning deficits.

“What’s changed is the political gridlock,” said David Beers, S.& P.’s global head of sovereign ratings, in an e-mail several days before a debt ceiling agreement was announced. “Even now, it’s an open question as to whether or when Congress and the administration can agree on fiscal measures that will stabilize the upward trajectory of the U.S. government debt burden.”

Experts say the fallout could be modest.

The federal government makes about $250 billion in interest payments a year, so even a small increase in the rates demanded by investors in United States debt could add tens of billions of dollars to those payments.

In addition, S.& P. may now move to downgrade other entities backed by the government, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-controlled mortgage companies, raising rates on home mortgage loans for borrowers.

However, because Treasury bonds have always been considered perfectly safe, many rules prohibiting institutions from investing in riskier securities are written as if there were no possibility that the credit rating of Treasuries would be less than stellar.

Banking regulations, for example, accord Treasuries a special status that is not contingent on their rating. The Fed affirmed that status in guidance issued to banks on Friday night. Some investment funds, too, often treat Treasuries as a separate asset category, so that there is no need to sell Treasuries simply because they are no longer rated AAA. In addition, downgrade of long-term Treasury bonds does not affect the short-term federal debt widely held by money market mutual funds.

In other words, almost no one would be precluded from investing in federal debt, and even the ratings agencies have concluded that few investors would walk away voluntarily.