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Mehdi Hasan: Time to downgrade the downgraders

Standard and Poor's decision to downgrade the United States's credit rating is outrageous and undemocratic.

Prior to September 2008 and the near-meltdown of the global financial system, who had ever heard of the credit rating agencies? Who could name the so-called big three (Standard and Poor's, Moody's and Fitch), which exerted such huge power and influence over the global economy?

That's all changed now. The decision by Standard and Poor's (S&P) to downgrade the United States's creditworthiness, from top-notch AAA status to AA+, dominates today's news headlines and may finally force ordinary people across the world -- and, in particular, in the US -- to sit up and take notice of these unelected, unregulated, politicised private firms, with horrific track records and excessive power over democratic governments.

As I wrote in today's Guardian (prior to the downgrade decision by S&P, I hasten to add!):

In recent weeks, we have witnessed elected leaders in the world's most powerful nation dancing to the tune of David Beers. He's the moustachioed, chain-smoking head of sovereign credit ratings for S&P, the largest and arguably most influential member of the big three.

"You may have never heard of David Beers but every finance minister in the world knows of him," noted Reuters in a recent - and rare - profile of the analyst, who doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. It is Beers who recently downgraded Greece's credit rating to near-junk status, thereby making the EU's proposed rescue plan much more difficult. And it is Beers who now demands the US reduce its long-term budget deficit by $4tn - rather than the congressionally approved $2.4tn - and threatens to impose the first-ever US government downgrade, from AAA to AA. It isn't just the Tea Party holding the US to ransom.

Three questions come to mind. First, who elected David Beers or his Moody's and Fitch counterparts? By what right do they decide on the fate of governments, economies, debts and peoples?

Second, why should we care what Beers thinks? What credibility do he and his ilk have? The bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in the US has described the big three as "key enablers of the financial meltdown". The commission's January 2011 report concluded: "The mortgage-related securities at the heart of the crisis could not have been marketed and sold without their seal of approval. Investors relied on them, often blindly ... Their ratings helped the market soar and their downgrades through 2007 and 2008 wreaked havoc across markets and firms."

Third, would a downgrade in the US's credit rating really be that apocalyptic? Or could the world's biggest economy survive such a blow? Politicians and, in particular, finance ministers have fetishised the triple-A rating, and conventional wisdom says that a country's interest rates will rise sharply on a downgrade. But a study by JPMorgan Chase last week showed only a slight increase in lending rates for countries that lost their AAA rating. In May 1998, S&P marked down Belgium, Italy and Spain from AAA to AA, but 10-year rates barely moved in response. In some cases, rates fall. In Ireland, for instance, 10-year rates fell 0.18 percentage points a week after S&P took away the republic's triple-A rating in March 2009.

You can read the whole piece here.

You can read Reuter's fascinating profile of David Beers here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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