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 Images
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Cameron needs to decide what he thinks about Russia

David Cameron's words suggest one thing, his actions quite another.

David Cameron needs to decide whether he takes Russia seriously.

He certainly talks a good game, calling Vladimir Putin to account for crimes against Ukrainian sovereignty and for supporting the wrong side in Syria, claiming credit for bolstering the post-Crimea sanctions regime, and demanding that Moscow’s behaviour change. And the new Strategic Defence & Security Review, published last week, puts Russia front and centre among the threats Britain faces.

The problem is, his government’s foreign policy seems calculated to make no one happier than Putin himself.

At fault is not a failure of analysis. It has taken Whitehall 19 months since Moscow annexed Crimea to develop a new Russia policy, replacing the old aspirations of “strategic partnership based on common values”, but the conviction that Russia be treated as a significant threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity is solid.

Five years ago, when the coalition government published the last Strategic Defence & Security Review, Russia was mentioned once, in the context of rising global powers with whom London could partner to help solve planetary problems, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The new SDSR tells a very different story. Russia gets 28 mentions this time around, characterised as a “state threat” that “may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine are mentioned in the same sentence with Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians and the rise of the Islamic State as key examples of how the world is becoming a more dangerous place.

How that threat will be countered, however, is not a question Whitehall can answer: it is a question for Westminster, and it gets to the heart of where this government sees its place in the world, and in Europe in particular. What Whitehall cannot say – but what the politicians must recognise – is this: the best bulwark against the Kremlin is a strengthened European Union, with more integrated markets and the force to push a concerted foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood. And that recognition requires Cameron to decide whether Putin poses a greater challenge than Nigel Farage.

The SDSR is right to note that the danger of a military confrontation with Russia is remote. Just in case, the Government has committed to bolstering aerial defences, contributing to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and maintaining the sanctions regime until a full settlement is reached that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. These are all reasonable measures, which will go some distance to ensuring that Moscow understands the risks of further escalation in the near term. But they do nothing to address the longer term problem.

From a hard-security perspective, Russia is a nuisance. The real danger is in the threat Moscow poses to what the SDSR calls the “rules-based order” – that system of institutions, agreements and understandings that underpin stability and prosperity on the European continent. That order is about more than respecting national borders, important as that is. It is also about accepting that markets are impartially regulated, that monopolies are disallowed and political and economic power reside in institutions, rather than in individuals. It is, in other words, about accepting rules that are almost the polar opposite of the system that Russia has built over the past 25 years, an order based on rents, clientelism and protected competitive positions.

Russia, after all, went to war over a trade treaty. It invaded Ukraine and annexed part of its territory to prevent the full implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was designed to make Ukraine function more like Europe and less like Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, the European project is a very real geopolitical threat, one that promises to reduce the territory in which Russia can compete and, eventually, to increase the pressure on Russia itself to change. In somewhat less pernicious ways Moscow is seeking similarly to derail Moldova’s and Georgia’s European integration, while working hard to keep Belarus and Armenia from straying.

This is not a problem of vision or diplomacy, a failure to convince Putin of the value of the European way of doing things. For Putin and those on whose behalf he governs, the European way of doing things carries negative value. And unless the basic structure of politics and economics in Russia shifts, that calculation won’t change when Putin himself leaves the Kremlin. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s rulers will be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the widening of Europe, at the cost of instability and dysfunction in the region.

European willingness is another question. A chorus of euro=sceptics both left and right have demanded that Europe stop provoking the Russian bear, leaving the Eastern Neighbourhood countries to fend for themselves – sacrificing Kiev’s sovereignty to Moscow in order to bolster their own sovereignty from Brussels. Cracks, too, are emerging in the centre of the political spectrum: as French President Francois Hollande pledged to work with Moscow to fight ISIS in Syria, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that such an alliance would necessitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia, thus trading stability in Syria for instability in Ukraine.

As a member of the EU, London has a role to play. Together with Berlin, London could exert pressure on Paris and keep the margins of the political spectrum marginal. London could through its weight behind a common energy market, forcing Gazprom to play by EU competition rules. London could bolster anti-corruption systems and ensure that ill-gotten gains have no safe haven in Europe. London could insist on the legitimacy of the European project from one end of the continent to the other.

Instead, London is threatening Brexit, relinquishing any leverage over its European allies, and seeking EU reforms that would eviscerate the common energy market, common financial regulation, the common foreign and security policy and other key tools in the relationship with Russia.

In their February 2015 report on EU-Russian relations, the House of Lords raised the question of “whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today.” To be sure, Europe can’t change Russia’s government and shouldn’t try. But by insisting on its own rules – both in how it governs its internal markets and in how it pursues its foreign policy – Europe can change the incentives Russia’s government faces.

The question, then, to Cameron is this: Whose rules would Westminster rather see prevail in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Europe’s or Russia’s?

Samuel A. Greene is Director of the King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London.