Nobody cares if a country's credit rating gets cut, so why listen to the agencies at all?

Credit ratings agencies are wrong, confused and frequently completely ignored

Bloomberg reported on a new study yesterday evening, showing the effects of a credit rating agency cutting its rating of a sovereign's debt is not what many expect it to be. 

Almost half the time, government bond yields fall when a rating action suggests they should climb, or they increase even as a change signals a decline, according to data compiled by Bloomberg on 314 upgrades, downgrades and outlook changes going back as far as 38 years. The rates moved in the opposite direction 47 percent of the time for Moody’s and for S&P. The data measured yields after a month relative to U.S. Treasury debt, the global benchmark.

The British experience is one of the key case studies in the piece, and we are actually one of the better examples of the ability of ratings agencies to move the market. On the chart below, the first orange flag is when Moody's said that the UK should implement severe cuts to keep it's Aaa rating, and the second is when our Aaa rating was put on negative outlook. Bad news would be expected to move the line up:

Yup, the markets pretty much ignored Moody's. Not quite as embarrasing as the French experience. In this case, the first orange flag is Standard and Poor's reaffirming the country's AAA rating and the other three are, respectively, a warning of a downgrade, a downgrade, and being put on negative outlook:

So the good news was followed by a steady rise in the spread, and the bad news was followed by sharp drops. Gee, I sure hope my country doesn't get downgraded by a ratings agency!

Not that any of this news is particularly new. Bloomberg even cite an IMF study from January which came to much the same conclusion:

In a January analysis of Moody’s rating changes, researchers at the IMF used credit derivatives to show that prices moved in the expected direction 45 percent of the time for developed countries and 51 percent for emerging economies. For outlook changes, the ratios were 67 percent and 63 percent.

The IMF study, by going into a bit more detail, reveals a bit of what's going on. Notice that the effect of outlook changes was significantly stronger than the effects of actual downgrades. As Felix Salmon points out, one of the strengths of markets is that they are very good at pricing in future events. When an outlook changes, a downgrade is likely to follow, and so a lot of the expected spike in yields happens before the actual downgrade.

But the other reason why the ratings agencies are ignored so often is that they simply aren't very good, particularly when dealing with countries like the UK and US, which control their own currencies. As Jonathan Portes has written time and again:

When it comes to rating sovereign debt, they simply do not know what they are talking about; worse than that, they do not even understand what their own credit ratings mean.

Ratings agencies are frequently ignored because it is nigh-on impossible to parse their ratings into actual claims. They aren't discussing increased risk of default; and nor are they discussing the risk of investing in gilts, because what they cut ratings for is frequently good for gilts (low growth, for instance, makes gilts a better deal). And the Bloomberg piece even closes with a quote which demonstrates the agencies' own cluelessness:

"The U.K. shouldn’t care at all what its rating is,” says Vincent Truglia, managing director of New York-based Granite Springs Asset Management LLP and a former head of the sovereign risk unit at Moody’s. “A rating is not what you’re supposed to be interested in. You’re supposed to be interested in the right public policy.”

If the UK shouldn't care about its own rating, then the fact that Moody's issues ratings phrased as guidance to governments – like the warning in 2010 that the UK needed to implement "severe cuts" to maintain its Aaa rating  – is very strange indeed. Ultimately, Truglia is just trying to shift the blame for the disastrous outcomes caused by policies his organisation recommended and threatened governments into implementing.

Credit ratings agencies: Falling over all the time? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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