Rating agencies – don’t shoot the messenger

Standard & Poor’s threat to downgrade the eurozone as a bloc has aroused the ire of European leaders and opinion makers. But according to a British columnist, the rating agency is only telling the unpalatable truth.

Published on 7 December 2011 at 14:17
Looking at the German DAX index at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, November 2011

For an arch-critic of credit rating agencies, this was not a moment to miss.

Barely had Standard & Poor’s suggested a possible eurozone downgrade than up popped a frothing Christian Noyer. “The rating agencies fuelled the crisis in 2008 and we can question whether they are not doing the same thing in the current crisis,” declared the Bank of France governor.

Noyer, who doubles up as a member of the European Central Bank’s governing council, may have an axe to grind. But his is hardly a lone voice. Today, few financial market organisations attract the opprobrium of S&P, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings.

Fairly or not, the Big Three have a reputation as the Johnny-come-latelys of the financial world – the sort who pitch up crying “fire” when the house is already burning down and then, cack-handedly, chuck on a bit of petrol.

So, the critics say, not only did the agencies fail to spot 2008’s financial crisis, they put some fuel under it by awarding AAA ratings to the very packages of toxic mortgages that took the roof off the world economy. Not just that. They still had Lehman Brothers, AIG and Washington Mutual on investment grade ratings until September 15 2008. All that from organisations which also failed to spot Enron.

Now, the charge sheet goes, they’ve also missed the eurozone crisis. What’s more, just when Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy finally looked like they were getting somewhere, S&P lobbed in a grenade. For Noyer, things have taken a darker turn. Hinting at a giant conspiracy, he accused S&P of changing its “methodology”, which was now “more linked to political factors and less to fundamentals”.

“Nonsense” is S&P’s riposte to that. And, while the agency’s intervention late on Monday certainly caused a political stir, it’s hard to disagree. As Kathleen Brooks, research director at Forex.com, pointed out: “The US doesn’t want Europe to go down the pan or for the debt crisis to spiral out of control more than it already has done, especially not in an election year. Likewise, the Chinese rely on Europe for growth, so the politically motivated argument really holds no water.” Indeed, the US has far from forgiven S&P for removing its AAA rating. Read full article in The Daily Telegraph


Agencies are not impressed by austerity

Writing in the Guardian, Ann Pettifor, director of British economic thinktank Prime, argues that the S&P downgrade threat “simply reflects politicians’ refusal to fix the broken global banking system.” European politicians, she notes –

… resolutely refuse to focus remedies for the crisis on the broken banking system. They have been persuaded that the financial system must not be tinkered with; it must not be taxed; and above all, it must not be allowed to face the wrath of market forces. Instead, eurozone taxpayers must be made to guarantee all the losses of private banks that lent to EU households, corporates and governments.

In order to finance the bailouts of the private banking system, the EU has resorted to a culture of savings and austerity:

But, as S&P can see as clearly as any little boy in the crowd, “austerity” has no economic clothes. Austerity is destroying investment and jobs, and therefore income. Without employment, individuals, households, firms and governments are deprived of money. Without employment income, governments cannot collect taxes, and banks cannot collect debt repayments. So banks face bankruptcy and government deficits rise. It’s not complicated.

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