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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.