S and P: Not the Best Judge of Credit-Worthiness

The media and the talking heads will no doubt make a big deal about S&P downgrading the U.S. debt from AAA to AA and threatening to go to A in 6 months.  But it’s really nonsense. The U.S. it is not possible for a sovereign nation with it’s own currency, it’s own central bank, and that borrows in that same currency to go into default.  I just heard Faux Fox News say this afternoon that this will cause all of us to pay higher interest rates on home mortgages and car loans!  Honestly, where do they get these people?  Fox claimed that your car loan and mortgage are “pegged” to the 10 year government bond rate.  Nope.  Not true.

Anyway, what we should be doing is taking another look at this whole bond-ratings scam.  Standard & Poor’s basically has a business model where they rate bond issues in return for fees paid by the banks selling those bonds.  There’s no reason or need for them to rate government issues except maybe for obscure municipal bonds where the information for an informed decision isn’t easy to come by.

So let’s recap how S&P has done in the past.  My favorite two highlights are Japan and Lehman Brothers.  In Japan, this is how interest rates (yields) on 10 year Japanese bonds have behaved since Jan. 2000:

It was in January 2001, right about when the yield hit it’s peak of 2.0% that S&P downgraded Japanese 10 year bonds indicating S&P thought the bonds were riskier and should pay an interest rate premium.  Kind of looks like Mr. Market and Ms. Investors didn’t agree.  Not having learned their lesson on the economics of sovereign debt, S&P did it again in January  2011 with another downgrade.  I think S&P needs to throw out their models and go back to school.

Now let’s look at the other side.  In September 2008, the day before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, S&P rated them “A”.  Two weeks later, even though Lehman had already gone bankrupt, S&P still didn’t get it and defended their rating:

“In our view, Lehman had a strong franchise across its core investment banking, trading, and investment management business,” S&P stated. “It had adequate liquidity relative to reasonably severe and foreseeable temporary stresses.”

Source: CFO Magazine












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
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.

On S&P and Government Creditworthiness

Standard and Poor’s, one of the big bond rating agencies, has announced today that they are giving a “downgrade warning” on U.S. government bonds.  Not a downgrade in credit rating, but just a “warning” that things could be downgraded.

Ho hum.  Such theatre.  As if we should believe S&P.  First, a sovereign currency-issuing government with a currency that is non-convertible (no gold standard and no fixed exchange rates) and that borrows in it’s own currency cannot go bankrupt. It cannot default unless it chooses to do so.  Period.  Money can always be created to pay the bonds as they come due.  In fact, money and bonds are pretty much the same thing. Issued by the same people. It’s just that bonds pay an interest rate. The currency notes in your pocket don’t.

Besides, S&P has done this before.  Let’s see, in 2002 they not only warned, they actually downgraded Japanese debt.  Let’s see how that worked out.  Surely a down-rated bond issue must have raised Japan’s borrowing costs as lenders (bond buyers) demanded higher rates to compensate for the risk of default, right.  Umm, no.  Japan continues to borrow at extremely low cost. Still payin gless than 1.8%.  No problem.

When you hear this stuff, remember S&P are one of the outfits that told everybody that subprime mortgage debt could be AAA rated, the best. They were wrong on Japan. They were wrong on subprime. They’re wrong now.

Remember it’s all political theater.  It provides talking points for “serious people” to worry about a deficit that’s not a problem so they can cut social programs.

Aftershocks: Prepare for the Slowdown

I’m back from the Higher Learning Commission conference in Chicago, which is why postings have been sparse.  I probably won’t get really back up to speed on postings for yet another few days because I’ve teaching, grading, and taxes to do.

In Japan, the aftershocks continue from the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami.  The global economy is beginning to experience aftershocks from the triple disaster (quake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown) as well.  As readers might remember, I pointed out last month that the disaster would prove to be the first real large scale “stress test” of the concept of globalization in manufacturing.  The initial expectation of economists after the disaster was that it would prove a challenge and shock to the Japanese economy but that there really wouldn’t be much impact outside of Japan.  Now we are starting to see that this initial reaction was wrong.  We are starting to see aftershocks in the global economy.

The news for the last two weeks in the global auto industry has been about supply-chain interruptions and temporary plant closures. For example Forbes reports today on Toyota’s announcement:

Toyota Motor Corp. said today it is going to halt production in Europe for eight days due to parts supply shortages resulting from Marchs earthquake and tsunami.

The shutdowns will take place from April 21 to May 2.

Assembly plants in the U.K., France and Turkey will be impacted as well as engine manufacturing facilities in the U.K. and Poland.

The plants will then run at a limited capacity.

This is on top of earlier announcements of rolling temporary shutdowns at U.S. plants and the continued shutdown or slowed production at it’s Japan plants.  Other news reports today have Toyota advising U.S. dealers that there will likely be shortages of some models at showrooms this summer.  Other reports.

You can’t sell cars you don’t have and haven’t built.  And you can’t build cars without all the parts – less than 100% of the parts is just not enough. Phillipines, Japan, Turkey, France, U.S., Germany, Britain.  This is global. And it’s not just one company. It’s across the industry since most firms had all adopted the same globalized supply chain strategy built around single sources for key parts.

It’s also not just the auto industry. The Wall Street Journal reports how electronics manufacturers are being affected:

Over the weekend, the Nikkei reported that Sharp halted LCD panel production at its Kameyama plant in Mie Prefecture, western Japan, and at its Sakai plant in Osaka until after the Golden Week holiday season in early May. The paper cited disruptions to industrial gas supplies and said the company expects to secure more gas in about a month…

Sony said Friday it is suspending operations at its optical parts and IC cards plant in Miyagi prefecture in northeastern Japan, following a power outage caused by the biggest aftershock to hit the area late Thursday.

A Sony spokeswoman said the plant will resume operations as soon as the power supply has been restored.

“Electronics makers and auto makers are extremely sensitive to further damages as it is becoming increasingly unclear how soon companies can resume full production,” Watanabe said.

I think it’s safe now to say that Japanese earthquake-driven interruptions to supply chains are more than just a “risk” to the global economic performance. We should consider the interruptions and concomitant plant shutdowns as a factor currently slowing economic growth.  At this time, the big question is just how much they will slow growth and even potentially reduce employment.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I have no great (or little) econometric model that I use.  I just go on my intuition.  Right now, I’m thinking the supply chain interruptions reduce GDP growth in the U.S. in second and third quarter 2011 by maybe 0.2-0.3 percentage points.  That’s not much. And in normal times it could be easily absorbed.  But this is not normal times.  We only grew at 2.9% in 4Q 2010.  We won’t know 1Q 2011 growth for another two weeks, but estimates are running lower – in the 1.5 to 2.5% range.  We need growth above 4% if we are to make serious inroads on re-hiring the nearly 20 million unemployed people, so, yes, this hurts.

And, like all aftershocks, this one is not isolated. There’s other aftershocks starting to hit our economy. Aftershocks from misguided budget deals and misguided European monetary policy.  I’ll talk more about those as I get time. Unlike GE, I have to pay my taxes this weekend.

Corporate Influence – GE and Radioactive Fallout

This morning the news came that more than 2 weeks after the tsunami in Japan, 4 of the 6 nuclear reactors at Fukashima are still not stable.  Indeed, 1 or 2 of the reactors are suspected of having leaks from, at best, the pipes into and out of the core reactor containment housing, and, at worst, the reactor containment housing itself.  Numerous stories have already been run about how Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the owner and operator of the Fukashima plant has had a checkered past with regard to safety and inspection compliance.  That’s to be expected when large corporations have unwarranted political influence and when an established industry “captures” the regulators. See here for more about regulatory capture.

But let’s ask who made the containment vessels and the reactor itself which has failed.  Why it’s none other than the U.S.’s own General Electric.  The very same firm that holds itself as “bringing good things to life” in this case is “bringing half-lives to things and people”.  Economic Policy Institute explains:

There can hardly be a more frightening person to be President Obama’s pet CEO than GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt. Yet, that is exactly who has the President’s ear at the White House.

It is becoming apparent that GE, rather than “bringing good things to life”, has a unique ability to cozy up to government, massage regulations and bring dangerous toxins into our lives—and I mean seriously dangerous.

NYT now tells us about the containment vessels at the damaged nuclear power plants in Japan are manufactured by GE:
…the type of containment vessel and pressure suppression system used in the failing reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant — and in 23 American reactors at 16 plants — is physically less robust, and it has long been thought to be more susceptible to failure in an emergency than competing designs.

G.E. began making the Mark 1 boiling water reactors in the 1960s, marketing them as cheaper and easier to build — in part because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure.

Feeling better about the value system and judgements of the people advising the President?  I’m not.

Possible Economic Effects of Japanese Disasters

Some information is starting to develop about the economic impacts of the events in Japan.  A week ago, just after the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant partial meltdown, it was much too difficult to foresee the probable impacts of the crisis. Now it’s starting to show and the news is not encouraging for a world that was only engaged in a weak precarious “recovery” from the Global Recession/Global Financial Crisis.

This crisis is really going to be a “stress-test” of modern globalized supply-chains.  The growth of world trade, particularly trade with and within Asia in the last 2 decades has been less about traditional trade, the buying and selling of finished goods between independent agents in different countries.  Instead, “globalization” is increasingly about extended specialization that stretches production processes around the globe. In traditional trade, a disruption of supply from one region is quickly substituted by other products from other regions. Thus traditionally, a natural disaster in one area tended to harm the economy of that region but not have ripple effects elsewhere.  Now, with globalized supply chains for complex designed products like consumer electronics, automobiles, industrial equipment, and computers, a simple disruption in one region might require the shutdown of production in far distant regions as parts become scarce.  Parts of sub-assemblies are usually design-specific and cannot be easily replaced by other sources.

We’re seeing the early signs of such problems.  Last week GM announced the temporary shutdown of an assembly plant in Shreveport, LA due to a lack of parts from Japan.  The NYTimes and WSJ report, via Calculated Risk, that in Japan itself, while Nissan has announced the first re-start of an entire auto assembly plant, resumption of full production at Japanese automakes remains uncertain.  Honda has warned that full production may not restart until May.  They also report that GM has had to curtail production at at least 2 plants in Europe in Spain and Germany. Now today, USA Today reports that the GM shutdown in Shreveport has rippled back to Tonawonda, NY, where GM makes engines for the pickups that are hung up pending Japanese parts.  More on the Japanese struggles to recover at the NYTimes.

Right now, many economists, particularly investment bank economists are saying the risks to global growth are minimal.  But much of their argument is based on the past and the experience with the Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1994.  I’m not so sure.  For one thing, the global supply chains are much more complex and tightly integrated now than they were after Kobe.  It’s not just autos. It’s also a lot of other industries and production spread throughout east Asia such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Korea.

Another very serious factor is how fast electrical power generation can be restored.  The Economist quotes Richard Koo:

the country as a whole might have suffered about a 12% decline in its capacity to supply electricity. Since the elasticity of electricy usage to GDP is about 2, this means that Japan’s GDP might have shrunk by as much as 6% in the wake of this disaster. Although efforts to improve electricity supply are on the way, even a momentary GDP decline of 6% is a huge shock to the economy.

I’m inclined to agree.  Electricity capacity is not quickly restored if the entire plants are scrapped as is happening with Fukashima, the site of the destroyed nuclear reactors.  This could mean a very deep contraction for Japan with a slow recovery. A 6% decline in the third largest GDP in the world and one of the most active trading partners would be a very serious dent in the world economy.  Especially at a time when Europe is struggling to grow because of it’s Euro-strait jacket monetary system and growth-reducing austerity policies.

Here in the U.S., we are facing our own threats to this very anemic “recovery” in the form of deeper state and local government spending and employment cuts.  We are also facing the prospect of higher gas prices for a protracted period which will also slow the economy.  I had hopes that the Japanese disasters, by slowing the Japanese economy, might at least weaken global demand for oil and possibly temper the recent rises in prices. But, alas, with the weekend decision to bomb Libya, oil prices have once again begun to rise.

Back to a Mess

So I’ve returned from my little hiatus off-the-grid.  And the world looks a lot worse than when I left.  In Wisconsin, the governor and the Republicans have abused the normal legislative process to ram through their repeal of collective bargaining rights for public workers (at least those public worker unions that didn’t endorse them in the last election). In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder continues his subterfuge that aims at privatization of cities and schools along with union-busting. In Europe, the Euro continues it’s march to self-destruction but it’s picked up Portugal and the Portugese people along the way.

But the worst news by far is, of course, the news from Japan. A triple catastrophe: earthquake, tsunami, and partial meltdowns of 2 (perhaps now 3) nuclear reactors. The toll in human life, both lives ended and lives disrupted, is sobering.  The power of nature is humbling.  There is little I can add to any news about the events in Japan.  However, I can add a couple of economic-related observations.

First, the entire disaster illustrates one of the problems with GDP accounting.  The first problem is that while some nations (I believe Japan is one) do attempt to record a value for “fixed capital used/destroyed” when calculating GDP to reflect the damage done, it is usually a weak and inferior estimate.  It gets swamped by the spending that is then spent on re-construction.  The spending adds to GDP. Thus it will often appear that a major natural disaster shows as a “boost to GDP” because it prompts spending on reconstruction.  I expect much the same to happen this time.  In no way should people think or interpret this as economists saying that the earthquake was “good” for GDP or Japan.  Quite the contrary. The earthquake/tsunami/partial meltdowns are a disaster.  In some ways, I would not be surprised if the Japanese economy, as measured by GDP, actually struggles in the coming months.  This is because the tsunami and evacuations based on the partial meltdowns constitute a huge “supply shock”.  So much capacity for production has been destroyed that it will hamper growth somewhat.  If nothing else, the rolling 3-hour blackouts of electricity thoughout Japan while the generating capacity gets restarted/restored will limit production at non-affected firms. There is just a tremendous uncertainty now.

A second observation that should be made is about how civil and social the response in Japan has been.  I have read numerous reports of Japanese being rescued from perilous circumstances and yet they apologize for inconveniencing the rescuers and taking the time/resource.  More significant is how social mores and culture in Japan have made the scenes at rescue shelters, water stations, stores, and elsewhere peaceful.  Numerous photos have shown these neediest people in the disaster areas peaceably queuing in line to get limited supplies of water or food.  I seriously doubt the same would happen here in the U.S.  Much of the difference is cultural. Yet, the culture is also related to the economy.  In Japan, the inequality of income is much narrower than in the U.S.  There is a powerful sense of social obligation.  Here in the U.S., while such a sense exists in pockets (and manifests at times in disaster), there is also a much more powerful individualistic, self-maximizing ethos that is reinforced by a larger inequality of income.

Finally, I have noted that some economists, particularly bank, financial, and “conservative” economists have been claiming that Japan may not be able to “afford” to re-build since it’s government has been running a large deficit already and it’s national debt is near 200% of GDP.  Well these same economists have been claiming economic bankruptcy for Japan for over a decade now as it’s debt accumulated.  These same economists have down-graded the “ratings” of Japanese bonds throughout this past decade as well. These same economists are dead wrong. Japan is a sovereign nation that borrows in it’s own currency and floats that currency on exchange markets (no fixed exchange rate).  Just like the U.S., Canada, Australia, U.K., and many others. And just like them, Japan’s national government cannot go bankrupt.  As Bill Mitchell of Billyblog observes:

the only relevant considerations are the real and human dimensions. There is no government financial crisis facing Japan as a result of the damage. Household and firm finances might be severely impaired but that is because these entities have financial constraints. The Japanese government has no financial constraints.