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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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.