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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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”