Moody's downgrade: both Osborne and Balls get it wrong
The reaction of politicians to Moody's decision to put the UK's AAA rating on "negative outlook" was predictable - and predictably tendentious. The Chancellor described it as "proof that, in the current global situation, Britain cannot waver from dealing with its debts" while the Shadow Chancellor said it was a "significant warning."
They are both wrong. It proves nothing and signifies less. The misdeeds and incompetence of the credit ratings agencies in the run-up to the financial crisis has been well documented. What is less well understood is that when it comes to rating sovereign debt, they simply do not know what they are talking about; worse than that, they do not even understand what their own credit ratings mean.
Moody's says its ratings are "opinions of relative credit risk of financial obligations...they address the possibility that a financial obligation will not be honored as promised." Standard and Poor's has much the same definition. So when it comes to rating UK government bonds, what the ratings agencies are assessing is simply the probability that the UK government does not pay back, in pounds, the money it has borrowed. Pounds which can be - and as we have seen over the past two years, have been, even in far less extreme circumstances than a potential default - created at the push of a button by the Bank of England.
The implication is obvious. In the event of nuclear war or an asteroid strike, it is possible the UK government might not pay its debts. Then we'll have other things to worry about. Otherwise, it will, simply because it can - and because the consequences of not doing so are dreadful. So whatever else happens, holders of gilts will get their money back. Saying that there is any meaningful probability that the UK will default on its debt - which is what downgrading the UK means - is not to take a particular view on the UK economic or fiscal outlook. It is simply not to understand what you are talking about.
So what, in fact, do Moody's think they are saying? Some commentators try to make excuses for the rating agencies, saying that, despite their official definitions, what they really mean is that people should be worried about putting their money in gilts, because inflation and interest rates might be higher in future, which would reduce the value of any gilts bought now. And indeed gilts investors should rationally take these factors into account.
But if this is in fact the argument, then Moody's have got the economics completely the wrong way round. Their statement says that the main rationale for the downgrade is the "weaker macroeconomic environment". But in fact, as we have seen in spades over the last year, a weaker macroeconomic environment is good for gilts. Markets correctly anticipate that if growth is going to be weak, interest rates will stay low for a long time - pushing long-term rates down, and pushing gilt prices up.
Suppose you had read our forecasts, gloomy but not gloomy enough, a year ago, and anticipated that the macroeconomic environment would indeed be much weaker than the government (or Moody's) predicted. Would the right thing to do have been to buy gilts or sell them? By Moody's logic, the latter. Of course, that would have been an exceptionally costly mistake. .
We could of course ask Moody's what they mean or think they mean. Last month, Sarah Carlson, Moody's UK analyst, was quoted in the FT as saying "We talk about countries having altitude in the triple A ratings space." No, I don't have a clue what she's talking about either. . The final argument made by those who think we should pay attention to the rating agencies is that they may be incompetent and their judgements meaningless - but the markets listen. For example, the Guardian today (I single them out because they really should know better) said:
"The AAA rating is the highest awarded to a country and allows it to borrow at the lowest interest rates"
However, as far as countries which can create their own currency are concerned, this just isn't true. As we saw recently, the market's response to Standard and Poor's downgrading of the US was to buy Treasury bonds and push down long-term interest rates. And this reaction isn't new or temporary. The chart below shows long-term interest rates in Japan since the late 1980s. Over that period, Japan has experienced a "weak macroeconomic environoment", to put it mildly, which inspired Moody's and the other ratings agencies to downgrade it several times. In fact Moody's first downgraded Japan in 1998.
Now Japan's economic policy over that period has hardly been a success. But the market and credibility impact of successive downgrades has not exactly shaken market confidence in Japan's debts; Japan is now paying the lowest long-term interest rates in recorded economic history (dating back to the Babylonian Empire, in fact).
So how should the government, and the markets, respond to the rating agencies? The former should, and the latter in my view will, simply ignore them. The Treasury should stop obsessing about how they will react, stop inviting them in for presentations and discussions about the economic and fiscal outlook, and simply say "We couldn't care less what the ratings agencies say. The UK will pay its debts. We have a credible and sustainable fiscal policy and we will continue to do so." Meanwhile, the Shadow Chancellor should make his arguments for an alternative approach to fiscal policy on the merits of the case, not attempt to bolster them by appealing to the judgement of these discredited and irrelevant organisations.
I still think the government's fiscal policy is wrong. In the short term fiscal policy is too tight; the resulting unnecessarily high levels of unemployment will do long term social and economic damage. A temporary loosening of policy would improve prospects for output and employment with little or no negative effect on fiscal credibility; the benefits, in my mind, substantially outweigh the hugely exaggerated market risks. But what the ratings agencies say, either in the past or in the future, is not a vindication either of my arguments or the government's; those need to be settled on the basis of proper economic analysis, not the misleading and ill-thought out views of Moody's and their ilk.
[This is an updated version of my Independent column here, last month].
Addendum: For anyone who needs further convincing of the irrelevance of the ratings agencies, see Olaf Storbeck's blog here [HT the excellent Chris Dillow], reporting on a new, rigorous econometric study which concludes: “The informational value of credit ratings is surprisingly low” (I'd quarrel only with the word "surprisingly"). In fact, the researchers' own very simple model easily outperforms the agencies.