U.S. Government Debt Downgraded by S&P. What a Farce. And Non-Issue.

Yesterday after the U.S. markets closed, Standard & Poor’s downgraded their credit rating on U.S. government bonds.  Previously, the U.S. government had enjoyed for over 70 years the highest possible rating:  AAA.  Now it is “only” going to be AA+.  We should note that the other two major bond-ratings agencies, Moody’s and Fitch’s still rate U.S. debt as AAA.  So what does this mean?  Does it reflect poorly on the U.S.?  Not really. It’s all a farce and it reflects poorly on Standard & Poor’s.

There are many reports in the news, especially in local newspapers and by non-economics reporters, to the effect that this downgrade means higher interest rates.  Some have even suggested that everyone in the U.S. including individuals and corporations and states will pay higher interest rates.  That’s all nonsense.  Not only is a national government not like a household or firm, but bond ratings for governments don’t work like credit ratings for individuals. If you credit score as an individual (those things called FICO scores), then when your credit rating is downgraded you pay higher interest rates for car loans, mortgages, and credit cards.  When governments get downgraded, especially from AAA to only AA+, it doesn’t directly affect interest rates.  Government debt interest rates aren’t really “set” by anybody.  Government debt interest rates are the result of market auctions of the bonds.  If demand for the bonds increases, then prices rise.  In bonds, prices are the inverse of the yield, or interest rate.  When prices go up, then interest rates have effectively gone down.

Lately U.S. Treasury yields (interest rates) have been dropping.  They’ve been dropping regardless of whether you compare now to 3 months ago or just 2 weeks ago.  They’ve been dropping regardless of which maturity (3 month, 6 mo, 2, 5, 10,or 30 year) you look at.  This means that bond prices have been rising. That means there is more demand for U.S. Treasuries.  Not exactly the story of default and risk that S&P maintains, right?  Right.

U.S. Treasury Yields

Maturity Last
Yield
Previous
Yield
3 Month 0.01% 0.01%
2 Year 0.22% 0.25%
5 Year 1.25% 1.13%
10 Year 2.56% 2.46%
30 Year 3.82% 3.72%
Data as of Aug 5 via http://money.cnn.com/data/bonds
So what does this really mean?  The best, clearest, most direct answers I’ve seen are from Wall Street Journal blogger Mark Gongloff.  Here are some of his answers to questions:

Q:What’s the difference between AAA and AA+? That doesn’t sound so bad.

A: It’s not so bad — and there’s not much difference. Technically, AA+ is considered “high grade” credit, while AAA is “prime.” The likelihood of getting paid back by a AA+ credit is considered “very strong,” while a AAA credit’s likelihood of paying you back is “extremely strong.” See the difference? Me neither.

And the U.S. is a special case, given its status as the world’s largest economy and printer of the world’s reserve currency. If your personal credit score falls, then you will almost certainly have to pay more to borrow. The U.S. can get away with a slight credit-rating downgrade without having to pay more to borrow. In fact, many other large, developed economies, including Japan, Canada and Australia, have lost AAA ratings in the past and not had to pay more to borrow in the long run.

Q:Luxembourg is rated AAA. Is the U.S. really a worse credit risk than Luxembourg?

A: No way. Luxembourg is a great country and a perfectly sound credit risk, but it lacks many of the advantages of the U.S., including the aforementioned economy and reserve currency, along with a very large printing press for that currency. If anything, this downgrade exposes some of the other discrepancies in ratings around the world. Should bonds issued by the European Financial Stability Facility, the entity set up to help bail out European sovereigns, really have a AAA credit rating, for example?

Q:Won’t some investors be forced to sell because of even this small downgrade?

A: Maybe, but not very many. Given the liquidity and relative safety of Treasurys, many regulators and money managers put Treasurys in a special category apart from rating considerations. Other managers are considering tweaking their rules to allow them to keep Treasurys.

U.S. banking regulators have confirmed that the downgrade will not force banks, which have big Treasury holdings, to raise any more capital as a cushion against losses. Short-term Treasury ratings weren’t affected, so money-market funds won’t have to sell

Q:What about foreign investors? Surely they’ll sell.

A: Probably, but they may not sell much. They’ve been trying to diversify their holdings for years, but they keep running up against an impregnable hurdle: They’ve got nowhere else to go. For better or worse, Treasurys are the largest fixed-income asset class in the world, by far, and the likelihood of default is next to nothing. The dollar is, for now at least, the world’s reserve currency, meaning foreign central banks will have to keep buying Treasurys. There’s really no other alternative available.

Q:What is the likely effect on interest rates, then?

A: Very hard to say, given all the cross-currents affecting markets right now. In a perverse sense, this downgrade has come at just about the best possible time for the U.S., despite the turmoil in the markets and anxiety about the economy. Those very uncertainties have driven investors around the world — including foreign central banks — to the safety of U.S. Treasurys, pushing U.S. borrowing costs to nearly their lowest levels in generations. So any increase in rates will come off a very low base. If interest rates rise half a percentage point, for example, that might put 10-year Treasury yields at 3% — still an extraordinarily low rate.

What’s more, the market has been bracing for this downgrade for a while, particularly on Friday, when rumors of it were widespread. It’s possible that most of the increase in yields has already happened. In any event, the history of Japan, et al, suggests that a downgrade might have no long-term impact on borrowing costs at all. Investors will likely respond more to inflation pressures, the direction of short-term interest rates and economic growth than to what one or more rating agencies say.

Remember that S&P are the same folks that told us that bonds backed by sub-prime mortgages were AAA a few years ago.  They are the same people that rated Lehman Brothers debt as “A” the night before Lehman declared bankruptcy. They are the same people that downgraded Japan over 10 years ago and yet Japan still pays lower interest rates on government debt than the U.S. despite having a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 200%, more than twice the U.S.  S&P has no special knowledge of the U.S.’s financial position that you don’t have access to.  They get all their data from the news too.

I really do not expect much direct impact from S&P’s decision on financial markets.  It may cause some temporary churn and increase volatility as a few funds might find they are legally required to sell because they must legally only own AAA bonds, but event that’s not likely.  I’m not alone in my prediction here either. Yves Smith at NakedCapitalism and others share my view.  Fortunately banks have been told that the rating change will not affect how bank capital requirements are calculated. Quoting the Wall Street Journal:

Late Friday, federal regulators said the downgrade wouldn’t affect risk-based capital requirements for U.S. banks—the cushion banks must hold to protect against losses. The Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other federal banking regulators said in a statement the lowering “will not change” the risk weights for Treasury securities and other securities issued or guaranteed by the U.S. government or government agencies.

If you believe S&P, then you must believe that Luxembourg and Leichtenstein are more secure, more powerful economies with a brighter future than the United States.

Government Bonds are Just Like Government Money

Government debt is not like private debt.  Government debt, government bonds, are really just another form of the government-issued fiat money obligations – just like paper money.  There really is little difference between government bonds and that paper money in your pocket – except that the bonds pay interest and are harder to cash at 7-11.  Yves Smith at NakedCapitalism points out what I’ve mentioned before:

what is the functional difference for the federal government between Treasury securities and bank notes? Both are liabilities of the federal government. But liabilities of what? The only obligation they enforce on the government is the promise to repay with more paper (or electronic bank credits, if you will). For all intents and purposes, bank notes, reserve deposits, and Treasury securities are fungible: they are obligations to be repaid in the same fiat currency.

I’m looking at a five dollar bill right now. It says “Federal Reserve Note” across the top. It has an oversized picture of Abraham Lincoln in the middle. It also says “this note is legal tender for all debt, public and private” in the lower left, signed “Anna Escobedo Cabral, Treasurer of the United States.” On the back, I see “The United States of America” up top and “In God We Trust” underneath with a picture of the Lincoln Memorial in the middle, labelled “Lincoln Memorial” for those who don’t know what it is. But, I’m trying to figure out why Geithner and the gang couldn’t just reel off a bunch of these and some Jacksons and Benjamins and pay people?

Now I’m looking at a Canadian Twenty. It sure is colourful. It has a bunch of French on it and a picture of the Queen. But, other than that, it’s really no different than the American fiver. “Ce billet a cours legal/ This note is legal tender.”

I have some Euros and Mexican pesos too. But these central banks don’t say anything about their obligations. Very dubious! At least they’re colourful like the Canadian money.

How ‘bout a British tenner? Dickens on the front, and the Queen on the back (she’s everywhere). A-ha. Here’s what I’m looking for. It says “Bank of England. I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds.”

I think that gets me to my point, actually. From the government’s perspective, there is no functional difference between any of its obligations like bank notes, electronic credits, or treasury bills and bonds. As the Ten pound note says, “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of [fill in the blank sum][fill in the blank fiat currency].”

So, the U.S. government could legitimately stop issuing bonds altogether if it wanted to. When people complain about the admittedly enormous government debt, they don’t think of the mechanics of the issue. As I see it, in a fiat money environment, the first function of the Treasury bonds is to serve as a vehicle to add or subtract reserves in the system to help the Federal Reserve hit a target Fed Funds rate. The second is to give holders of government obligations a return on their investment. After all, bank notes or bank reserves don’t pay much if anything.

If you’ve following, then you realize two things.  First the government* can always pay off it’s bonds.  Second, there’s no budget constraint that forces the government to “borrow in order to spend”.  Instead, the government chooses to borrow (issue bonds) to meet any difference between spending and tax collections.  It’s a political and policy choice.  The government could spend by issuing credits to bank accounts (electronic checks) which would create bank reserves. Or the government could just issue new paper currency to pay for it’s spending.  Either way, it’s essentially the same:  the government issues a paper (or electronic) obligation to pay in the future.

So what’s the difference?  Well there is one key difference.  (no, it doesn’t have to do with inflation).  Money or bank reserves issued doesn’t pay interest.  So people have limits on how much they want to hold.  So they then spend it and the money goes into circulation as people buy, sell, and trade things.  The real economy grows because the medium of exchange is more plentiful.  What happens when bonds are issued instead?  The holders of bonds earn interest.  That makes them comfortable just sitting on the bonds and collecting interest from the government at no risk.  There’s no exchanges, no trading, no buying, no selling.  No economic activity.  The political preference for borrowing over issuing money/credits means a subsidy to a narrow class of people to take their wealth out of circulation.