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21 November 2012

We must free ourselves from the tyranny of the credit rating agencies

The disastrous record of the rating agencies proves that they do not deserve their exalted position.

By David Skelton

“We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts.”

Harold Macmillan

When Macmillan warned about a tyranny of “experts”, he probably didn’t have the credit rating agencies in mind.  But in 2012, it probably applies to them more than any other category of experts. These anonymous bodies hold enormous power over democratically elected governments. Their musings are often enough to force a government turn away from the democratic mandate on which they were elected. Only yesterday, Moody’s caused panic by stripping France of its AAA status.

Have these anonymous, powerful experts deserved the credibility and the exalted position they are given by the media and politicians? Have they shown real foresight that merits their ability to lecture elected politicians? In almost all cases, the answer is no. 

In December 2009, Moody’s decided to address growing concerns about the indebtedness of the Greek government.  Its declaration was clear, decisive and wrong, with its report being titled, “investor fears over Greek government liquidity misplaced.” Moody’s suggested that, the risk that the Greek government cannot roll over its existing debt or finance its deficit over the next few years is not materially different from that faced by several other euro area member states.” It then went on to declare that, “there is an extremely low probability that the government’s liquidity will pressured.”

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Only six months later, the first EU/IMF bailout package – of €110bn was agreed. And this slip up from the credit agencies came just over a year after their failure to predict the financial crisis that pushed most of the western world into recession. Lehman Brothers and AIG were still AAA or AA rated just before they collapsed.  At the congressional hearings into the pre-recession failure of the credit ratings agencies, they were accused of offering “opinion”, rather than analysis.

Nor was this a one off. Sukhdev Johal has analysed what happened to corporate debt rated AAA by Standard & Poor.  Within three years, some 32 per cent of this debt has been downgraded and a massive 57 per cent had been downgraded within seven years. That doesn’t really suggest that the lionised credit rating agencies have much credibility in either the short or the long term.

There are important discussions to be had about the way in which European economies should be heading and crucial debates about a variety of policy directions. But we should stop kidding ourselves about the credit ratings agencies and stop thinking that their declarations should be decisive.

You can follow David on Twitter @djskelton