S&P revises its outlook for T-bonds from stable to negative

The S&P announcement

Yesterday the rating agency issued a new “unsolicited” opinion (meaning it wasn’t hired by the US to do so) on US government debt.  While retaining its current AAA rating for Treasuries, S&P has revised down its outlook for the country’s long-terms obligations from stable to negative.

What does this mean?

“Negative” means S&P thinks there’s at least a one in three chance of a credit downgrade within the next two years.

S&P’s reasoning?

The factors S&P considers most important are:

–deterioration of the US fiscal position over the past decade

–damage done by the financial crisis and ensuing recession

–inability of Washington to agree over the past two years on a plan to address these issues

–the “significant risk” that nothing will be done before the election in November 2012.

Although S&P (like everyone else) regards unfunded entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid as the main sources of budgetary woes, it points out that the country may also have to cough up another $685 billion to recapitalize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  S&P observes, as well, that much of the US sovereign debt is concentrated in the hands of a small number of foreign governments, raising the possibility that one or more might change their minds.

be careful what you wish for

It wasn’t that long ago that Congress was lambasting the rating agencies for not being proactive enough in downgrading the exotic credit instruments spewed out by Wall Street.  Their collapse weakened the national finances and made the deficit a “today” issue rather than one that could be safely be put off.

I wonder how Washington likes proactivity now?

And the S&P raters whose integrity was questioned by Congress wouldn’t be human if they didn’t take a kind of satisfaction in calling attention to the fact that the UK–and even France (?!?)–are further along the path to fiscal responsibility than the US.

what happens next?

A lot depends.  I don’t think there’s much anyone can say for sure.

For one thing, not everyone agrees that the S&P analysis is correct.  For example, a comment popped into my inbox at about 6pm on Monday from Jim Paulsen, the chief economist for Wells Capital, arguing that the deficit is primarily cyclical.

It seems to me, though, that the S&P announcement puts additional pressure on elected officials to cooperate with one another.  That pressure would increase if, say, Moodys, were to follow the S&P lead and say something similar.  The debate on raising the federal debt ceiling will give an almost immediate indication of whether the Democrats and Republicans can work together.

No matter what, my guess is that the S&P announcement will turn out to be a significant turning point for US government finances.  Despite the dollar being the world’s reserve currency, I think the days of Washington just willy-nilly issuing news bonds are coming to an end–sort of like maxing out an almost infinite credit line.

Also, if past form holds true (and I think it will), domestic borrowers–not foreigners–would be the first to desert the Treasury market in large numbers.  This means that worry about Treasuries will express itself initially, and primarily, through higher interest rates, not a weaker currency.  Only if the situation becomes really ugly will the dollar come under significant pressure.

From an overall economic perspective, I find the “hidden” loss of wealth through currency depreciation to have worse negative effects than adjustment through higher interest rates and a slower economy.  From a stock market point of view, however, it’s much easier to devise a money-making strategy in a weak currency environment than in a high interest rate one.

Stay tuned.



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