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Saturday, 13 August 2011

US no longer ‘AAA’, Eurozone the next?

US no longer ‘AAA’


STANDARD & Poor's (S&P's) had on Aug 5 cut the US long-term credit rating by a notch to AA-plus (from AAA). This unprecedented move reflected concerns about the US's budget deficits and rising debt burden. It called the outlook “negative,” indicating that another downgrade is possible in the next 12-18 months.

According to S&P's, the Aug 2 debt deal which cut spending by US$2.1 trillion, didn't go far enough: “It's going to take a deal about twice the size to stabilise the debt to GDP ratio.” It also stressed what it saw as the inability of the US political establishment to commit to an adequate and credible debt reduction plan: “The effectiveness, stability & predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges.” Moody's Investors Service and Fitch Ratings haven't followed S&P's move causing a split rating. They had earlier (on Aug 2) affirmed their AAA credit ratings for the US, while warning that downgrades were possible, grading the outlook as negative. At the same time, China's only rating agency (Dagong Global Credit Rating) downgraded the US from A-plus to A saying the deal won't solve underlying US debt problems.

US downgrade

What does a rating downgrade mean? For the US, it will affect its borrowing costs eventually and immediately, investor opinion of US assets. According to Sifma (a US securities industry trade group), the downgrade could add up to 0.7 of 1 percentage point to US Treasury yields, thereby increasing funding costs for US public debt by some US$100bil. But the US dollar has a special position as the numeraire of global transactions; it is also a reserve currency, and often regarded as a safe haven in times of uncertainty. Ironically, in the recent sell-off in equities world-wide following the S&P's downgrade, US government bonds was a big beneficiary. Its benchmark 10-year bond yields fell 21 basis points on Monday to 2.35%, the biggest one day drop since January 2009; by Wednesday, it was 2.14%, the lowest yield on record. Two year US Treasuries yield touched a record low of 0.23% and then, fell further to 0.184% on Wednesday. In the panic, Treasuries appear to be still the way to go.

With the downgrade, US no longer warrant the top-tier rating it enjoyed since 1941 (Moody has had a AAA on the US since 1917). At AA+, the US is still considered to have a “strong” ability to service its debt. Only Canada, Germany, France & UK still carry triple-A at S&P's. The downgrade didn't affect US short-term rating which remains at A-1+, the highest at S&P's. In a follow through, S&P's downgraded numerous government related enterprises (notably Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which together hold more than one-half of US mortgages), 73 investment funds (fixed income funds, hedge funds, etc) and 10 insurance companies for their large holdings of Treasuries. But banks were spared on the implicit “too big to fail” policy of the government. Nevertheless, the US bond market retains widespread appeal. At more than US$35 trillion at end-March, this market is broad, liquid and deep. The Treasuries market alone has US$9.3 trillion debt outstanding. But in the end, the market decides. Consider Japan S&P's downgraded it in 2002. Today, Japan is still able to borrow freely & cheaply. As of Aug 9, interest rate on Japan's 10-year bonds stood at just 1.045% and 30-years, at below 2%. In practice, for the US, a double A-plus still works like a de facto triple-A.

Market rebound: Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday — AP
Immediate global sell-off

When markets opened following the weekend downgrade, a global panic sell-off in equities took over.  There was a lot of fear and uncertainty in the markets, reflecting a confluence of three main factors:

● uncertainty about the US economy faltering, raising the risk of a double-dip recession;
● worries that the downgrade could further undermine US consumer confidence & business spending adding another layer of anxiety on the global economic outlook; and
● fear the euro-zone debt crisis will spin out of control, spooking investors.

All this took its toll. Stock markets plunged around the world with funds flowing into havens, such as gold (up 60% since 2010, surpassing US$1,800 a troy ounce), Swiss francs (up 24% against euro and 32% on US dollar over the past year) and ironically, US Treasuries. In Asia, markets closed at their lowest levels in about a year. Key benchmarks in Hong Kong, Seoul, Mumbai and Sydney skidded for the fifth consecutive day. Shares in China, Taiwan and South Korea plunged sharply before recovering some ground. All closed nearly 4% lower on Monday. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng Index had its worst day since the 2008 financial crisis, falling another 5.6% on Tuesday; it had fallen by 16.7% in the past six sessions, or more than 20% from its recent peak. South Korea's Kospi was down 3.6% and Indonesia's main stock exchange fell 3%. At its close, the KL Bursa lost another 1.7% on Aug 9 (-1.8% on Aug 8). Japan's Nikkei fell 2.2% to its weakest level since the March earthquake. India's Bombay stock index declined 1.6%, its fifth drop in a row.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) recovered 1.5% on Tuesday after a record 635 point fall (-5.5%) in sell-offs on Monday. The German DAX closed further down 5% and the Paris CAC 4.7% lower while the FTSE 100 in London fell another 3.4%. The Stoxx Europe 600 index ended 1.4% higher following a 4.1% slide on Monday, although underlying sentiment remained extremely fragile. The VIX which tracks stock market volatility, reached its highest since the initial Greek debt crisis in May 2010. It rose 20% to 38.5 on Monday afternoon and then to 40.5 on Tuesday, reflecting extreme fear and emotional trading. It measures the price investors pay for protective options on the S&P's 500 index. After Monday's sharp share-price drop and the previous week's poor performance, China and Hong Kong aren't the only markets at or near bear territory. Stocks in Germany & France are now down more than 20% (definition of a bear market), from highs reached in the previous year. India's benchmark Bombay Sensex is down 20%, and Japan's Nikkei is off 16.5%.

A day after US stocks received a boost from the Fed to keep interest rates low until 2013, markets in the US and Europe resumed their plunge on Wednesday. The fear: politicians across the Atlantic won't be able to manage the significant headwinds buffeting the US & European economies. Woes were focused on France, where its bank stocks plunged amid worries it may lose its triple-A status. The Paris CAC-40 index fell 5.4%. In the US, the DJIA was down 4.62% (-520 points) wiping out Tuesday's surge. The Fed had run out of bullets. Asian stocks advanced Wednesday with sentiment helped by a strong Wall Street rebound. However, gains in most markets lacked the passion observed on the way down. Hong Kong was up 2.3%, South Korea, 0.3% and Taiwan, 3.3%. All three were still down more than 10% so far in August. Japan was up 1.1%, Australia, 2.6% and China, 0.9%. But Stoxx Europe 600 was down 3.7%. Expectations are for the markets to remain choppy. On Thursday, most Asian markets were back in negative territory. But Europe closed stronger (up about 3%) and the DJIA surged by 4% (+423 points).

European contagion 

Italy and Spain, the euro-zone's third and fourth largest economies, have a combined GDP of nearly 2.7 trillion euros, about 30% of the eurozone total. For nearly two years, the European Union (EU) has been trying to stem the unfolding debt crisis. The July 21 Greek bailout bought some time not much to ward off further contagion. The European Central Bank's (ECB) decision on Aug 7 to buy Italian and Spanish debt represents a watershed in EU's continuing battle against turning ECB into the lender of last resort. The ECB has insisted the main responsibility to act lies with national governments. Given worries of a new bout of contagion sweeping European and global markets, ECB defended the new intervention as restoring the “normal functioning of markets through a better transmission of monetary policy.” ECB's continued bond-buying brought benchmark Spanish borrowing costs for 10-year bonds down to 5.019% on Tuesday, close to their lows for the year. Italian 10-year bond yields also fell to a one month low of 5.143%. Both countries' yields had approached 6.5% last week a level that eventually escalated to push Greece, Ireland & Portugal into bail-outs. Analysts estimate ECB could have bought up to 10 billion euros, a small fraction relative to the size of Spain & Italy's debt markets. Italy's debt alone is 1.8 trillion euros.

Market sentiment aside, the purchases did little to change the fundamental backdrop in Europe where economic growth has slowed even in the “core” nations of Germany & France. Signs of stress remain despite the positive market reactions to ECB's decision. Deposits at ECB, for example, hit a 2011 high of 145 billion euros on Monday, reflecting banks' reluctance to lend inter-bank preferring the safety of ECB. There is a limit to how deeply ECB can be drawn into the fiscal misadventures of its members. Concerns are mounting on the French economy because of its high debt levels (85% of GDP, already above the US & rising) and weak growth prospects. Germany, in much better shape, isn't immune either. Already, the cost of insuring German bonds against default using credit-default swaps (CDSs) rose above 85 basis points, higher than insuring UK bonds for the first time on Tuesday, despite the London riots. There is growing concern the new austerity measures in Italy & Spain will slacken their struggling economies, plagued also by social unrest.

What's wrong with the US economy?

The recession ended two years ago. The stumbling recovery may turn out to be the worst ever. Most indicators are not reassuring unemployment at 9.1% is still too high and jobs creation too slow; GDP growth is faltering, income growth continues lagging behind; household wealth is falling; banks are not lending enough; and consumer expectations have not been positive. In the last eight recoveries, lost jobs were regained within two years of recession's end. This recovery is still seven million jobs below peak employment in 2008 and about two million fewer than if unemployment was held below 8%. The US economy will remain lacklustre for some years because of heavy household debt, a financial system deeply scared by mortgages, and a dysfunctional political establishment. Heavy household debt and a dismal job market have hurt consumers' confidence, further dampening their willingness to spend. The only bright spot is exports, reflecting the weak US dollar and still booming emerging economies. Unexpectedly, the pace of growth in US services fell in July to its lowest level since February 2010. Taken alongside disappointing manufacturing data, the services sector showed-up an economy with weak hopes of a rebound in the second half of this year, after an anaemic first half. According to Harvard's Martin Feldstein, “This economy is really balanced on the edge. There is now a 50% chance that we could slide into a new recession.” Even Prof Larry Summers now concedes: “The odds of the economy going back into recession are at least one in three.”

The US problem is more a job and growth deficit than an excessive budget deficit. The diagnosis of the run-up in debt out of control spending by the Federal government, is exaggerated. Indeed, the “cure” of severe spending cuts is likely to make recovery more difficult. The real problem lies in the fall-off in tax revenue. From 20% of GDP in 1998-2001, tax revenue has fallen steadily: averaging just 17% of GDP from 2002-08 and then, to below 15% in 2009-10. About 50% of the rise in deficit was due to the downturn because of “automatic stabilisers”, reflecting cyclical revenue falls and higher spending to assist the unemployed and other transfers to help the poor. They contribute to demand and assist to “stabilise” the economy.

The US rating downgrade is a warning bell. On present trend, its debt burden is unsustainable and the US political system seems unable to reverse it. To do so, it needs faster growth can't cut its way to growth. What's required is tax reform and a will to restore revenues back to the 20% of GDP trend; a prospect most Republicans have castigated. At issue is not the US government's capacity to service its debt, John Kay of the Financial Times pointed out. It is the “willingness of the government to repay.” If sovereign borrowers meet their obligations, it is only because “they want to.”

Former banker, Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who now spends time writing, teaching & promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome; email: