"They don't know what they're talking about"

The problem with the ratings agencies

A blog post by Jonathan Portes, the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, in which he lambasts the European Commission for dealing with Fitch Ratings, has been spreading far and wide, and for good reason. It's worth reading the full post, but here's the tastiest passage:

These agencies have repeatedly been proved wrong; they have flawed and frequently conflicted business models; and their ratings have no predictive power.  All this is well established. Moreover, when it comes to assessing sovereign debt "credit risk" they - and I mean this quite literally - do not know what they are talking about. By that, I mean they quite simply don't understand what they themselves are saying.

Paul Krugman agrees:

We saw very dramatically what the rating agencies are worth when S&P downgraded America — nothing. Bond yields actually fell.

The point is that while maybe, maybe, S&P or Moody’s or Fitch know something about corporate debt, they know less than any competent macroeconomist about sovereign debt.

A good way of sorting the economists from the political commentators appears to be whether they have consistent views on the ratings agencies. Compare the attitude to the two times Britain has been put on negative outlook – once under Osborne, once under Darling – and you will find a lot of contrasting views. Either many commentators had a radical conversion to or against the expertise of the agencies, or there are a lot of charlatans on both sides of the political divide who have no strong views on credit ratings agencies beyond "they are a useful stick to hit my opponents with".

AAA ratings: Not all they're cracked up to be. Credit: Getty

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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.