Credit rating agencies still not very good at rating credit

The University of Cambridge is apparently a safer investment than the UK.

More ratings-agency craziness. Cambridge University is entering the bond market for the first time, and Moody's has rated its debt as safer than Britain's. The Financial Times' Michael Stothard and Chris Cook report (£):

Britain’s richest and second-oldest university issued a 40-year, £350m bond, taking advantage of low yields to fund a new laboratory for stem-cell research and accommodation for postgraduates.

The bond, priced at 60 points over gilts, was well received. Last week, the university was awarded a triple A rating by Moody’s. The agency said the rating reflected Cambridge’s “outstanding market position, significant amount of liquid assets and strong governance structure”.

Yet more evidence that ratings agencies "quite simply don't understand what they themselves are saying", in the word of NIESR's Jonathan Portes. As Matt Yglesias writes, there is no possible situation in which Cambridge bonds, denominated in British pounds could be safer than UK sovereign debt:

When the UK government borrows money, it borrows pounds sterling. The UK government also has the capacity to create infinite quantities of pounds sterling instantaneously. Therefore, the UK government can never be forced by economic circumstances into defaulting on its debt obligations. At worst it could be forced into inflationary policies that erode the value of its pound-denominated debt. If you're an investor, that's a real thing to worry about when buying British debt. But any such inflation would equally impact any pound-denominated debt no matter what the circumstances of the issuer. University of Cambridge debt can't be safer than UK sovereign debt in inflation terms.

The bizarre decisions made by the ratings agencies have always been there – back in 2002, for instance, Moody's downgraded Japan below Botswana – but finally, awareness is starting to become more widespread. If that awareness can penetrate the world of finance, then the end of their influence may be nearer than it looks.

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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.