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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We are heading for the next recession – it's crucial the right people are in charge

There is grave economic trouble ahead, and if the Tory right are in power, the consequences could be ghastly.

Well, we were warned. The governor of the Bank of England and the IMF, as well as much of the financial community, were very clear that Brexit would produce a damaging economic shock. It is happening.

Even if we discount George Osborne’s absurd and counterproductive attempts to predict the precise fall in house prices and threaten a deflationary emergency budget, there were sensible and dispassionate warnings of severe trouble ahead. We now need to think through how progressive opponents of this government should respond.

My starting point is a disagreement with my Tory former colleagues in the coalition – from both Remain and Leave – who argue that Britain has a “fundamentally strong economy”. It doesn’t. We have barely recovered from the 2008 crisis, are still on the life-support system of artificially cheap money and have a horribly unbalanced economy. Recovery was happening but fragile.

The first stage in the post-Brexit shock is the predictable turbulence in financial markets as liquid investors jump into safer assets and away from riskier holdings of sterling, UK banks and other shares. This is a very different situation from 2008, which was a financial crisis to which politicians had to respond; this is a political crisis, a huge escalation of political risk, to which markets are responding.

The fall in sterling should not exercise us too much. If devaluation is locked in, it would help rebalancing. The Monetary Policy Committee will surely be sensible and disregard the short-term inflationary consequences, as members did the spike in commodity prices five years ago. If investors move out of UK residential property and precipitate a sustained fall in house prices, that is also to be welcomed. The main casualties of the immediate turbulence are Brexit-voting pensioners whose annuity values crashed with the flight into gilts.

The gravest potential short-term risk was anticipated by the Bank of England when it pumped in £250bn to prevent a drying up of liquidity in the banking system and another credit crunch. The prompt action has clearly reassured markets. However, what may be more serious is the gradual reassessment of risk by bank credit committees leading to restrictions on lending to smaller businesses. That would be disastrous for growth. A pragmatic government should reach for some of the tools created by the coalition, such as the British Business Bank, for sources of business credit.

In the second stage the crisis will migrate from asset markets to the real economy and jobs. The new Tory leader will be praying the time before unemployment kicks in will be long enough to have a general election. By autumn, we shall have a clearer picture of the scale of any slowdown, but I find it difficult to see how we can avert a Brexit recession.

The issue is how to deal with a recession. Monetary stimuli are losing effectiveness. With interest rates close to zero, there isn’t much scope for further cuts and quantitative easing is becoming increasingly problematic. Some in the City will be urging more cuts, worried about Osborne’s plan to eliminate government borrowing by 2019.

There was never a better time for public investment to fill the gap in demand left by private investors. There is a long pipeline of coalition infrastructure projects, including Network Rail’s stalled investment plan, to get on with. But then we encounter the Treasury’s pathological aversion to borrowing to invest. Its deep conservative instincts will be reinforced by our deteriorating credit rating.

Yet the need to confront the structure and balance of the economy transcends the issues of short-term crisis and medium-term macroeconomic management. The financial sector may well take a bad hit with banks migrating to European centres. We should not minimise the costs to individuals and the Exchequer, but it may be no bad thing if the result is some rebalancing. The industrial strategy put in place under the coalition is an ideal vehicle for building confidence in long-term investment in manufacturing and creative industry. Of course, none of this will happen without a speedy confirmation of the UK’s continued role within the single market.

How the economics of this political crisis will be dealt with depends on the parliament that is returned when a new Tory leader calls an election. If the Tory right emerges triumphant, the consequences will be ghastly. If the parties of the centre and left – including disaffected Tory Remainers – can get themselves organised, however, we could see an altogether happier outcome.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies