S&P, Moody's Warn On U.S. Credit Rating

Townhall.com Staff
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Posted: Jan 13, 2011 1:46 PM

LONDON—Two leading rating firms have cautioned the U.S. on its credit rating, expressing concern over a deteriorating fiscal situation that they say needs correction.

The warnings issued Thursday echoed prior statements by the companies, however, and financial markets largely ignored them. Treasury yields, which move in the opposite direction as prices, were lower in late-morning trade and the cost of insuring U.S. debt against the risk of default, already below that of Germany, the euro-zone benchmark, barely budged.

"My traders are shrugging it off as stuff we've heard before," said Tom Di Galoma, head of interest-rate trading at Guggenheim Partners in New York.

Moody's Investors Service said in a report that the U.S. will need to reverse an upward trajectory in the debt ratios to support its triple-A rating.

"We have become increasingly clear about the fact that if there are not offsetting measures to reverse the deterioration in negative fundamentals in the U.S., the likelihood of a negative outlook over the next two years will increase," said Sarah Carlson, senior analyst at Moody's.

"The view of markets is that the U.S. will continue to benefit from the exorbitant privilege linked to the U.S. dollar" to fund its deficits, Carol Sirou, head of S&P France, said at a conference in Paris on Thursday. "But that may change. We can't rule out changing the outlook" on the U.S. sovereign debt rating in the future, she warned. She added the jobless nature of the U.S. recovery was one of the biggest threats to the U.S. economy. "No triple-A rating is forever," she said.

Moody's said the U.S., Germany, France and the U.K. still have debt metrics, including the debt affordability, compatible with their triple-A ratings at Moody's. But all four countries must bring the future costs arising from pension and health care subsidies under control if they "are to maintain long-term stability in their debt burden credit metrics," Moody's said in its regular triple-A Sovereign Monitor report.

Moody's noted that measures were recommended by the U.S. National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, appointed by President Obama, to achieve a balanced primary budget, which excludes the cost of interest payments, by 2015, but that there was insufficient support to trigger consideration of those recommendations by the full Congress.

The wide variety of recommended measures included Social Security reform, cutbacks in the growth of Medicare outlays, elimination or modification of the mortgage interest tax deduction, a gasoline tax and other measures, Moody's said.

"In Moody's view, a plan that would result in a reversal of the upward trajectory in the debt ratios would indeed be supportive of the country's Aaa rating," the ratings agency said in its report. "However, it is unlikely that the Commission's recommendations will be adopted."

The most recent official figures show the ratio of federal debt to revenue averaging 397% of gross domestic product in the period to 2020, while the ratio of interest to revenue will rise to 17.6% by 2020, from 8.6% in the last fiscal year. "These figures are "quite high for an Aaa-rated country," Moody's said.

Debt affordability is "very important to the rating process," Ms. Carlson said. U.S. general government debt affordability, including states and municipalities, is "rising over time to a high level for an Aaa-rated country," the report said.