Thursday, 11 April 2013

Diverging Opinions: S&P refuses to follow Moody's, instead reaffirming the UK's AAA

A few weeks ago, Moody's downgraded the UK one notch to AA1, depriving it for the first time of its top AAA rating. It was roughly a month before the Chancellor was due to deliver his budget, and we wondered what Moody's knew that we didn't. Well, maybe not a great deal. In a counter move, Standard & Poor's yesterday announced that it would be maintaining the UK's AAA rating, albeit with a negative outlook and a one in three likelihood of downgrade over the next 18 months. The agency expects the UK economy to grow by 1.6% per year for the next three years - below estimates provided by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. It also states that any easing of the austerity program may precipitate a downgrade. Fitch Inc has altered the UK's status from "negative outlook" to "negative watch", indicating that a downgrade may yet be imminent, but allowing the UK to cling on to the top rating for a little longer.

So why did the largest two ratings agencies come to different conclusions about the UK economy?

I discussed the downgrade by Moody's in a previous post, and will focus on S&P's decision here. 

S&P's reaffirmed the UK rating because “the Government remains committed to implementing its fiscal programme, and has the ability and willingness to respond rapidly to economic challenges”. This is despite the fact that the national debt as a percentage of GDP in 2016 is expected to rise from 85% to 95% while the deficit falls to only 4.2%. While this clearly remains within the 'acceptable' limits of fiscal consolidation according to S&P's, the agency warned that should the pace slow any further, a downgrade will follow. The top rating was apparently spared on the back of the UK's wealthy and diverse economy, the flexibility of fiscal and monetary policy, as well as flexible and adequate product and labour markets. These were taken into account by Moody's as well though, indicating perhaps that S&P's has placed slightly more weight on the willingness and political commitment of the government to stick to its austerity plans, come rain or shine.

Standard & Poor's also made mention of the EU referendum promised to UK voters by David Cameron. The agency's assumptions are based on the premise that corporate sentiments are unaffected by the uncertainty created by the referendum. In other words the CRA acknowledges that the referendum creates uncertainty - that businesses are cautious in uncertain climates - but goes on to conclude that this is not the case here. Why? Much of the literature on investment emphasises the role of certainty and predictability in creating a suitable investment climate to attract businesses and long-term investment. Uncertainty surrounding the future of the UK within the EU, and a potential end or alteration to the free movement of goods, people, services and capital across British borders within the European Union could seriously harm the UK.plc's outlook. Not that there is much Mr. Cameron can do about this now, having made the promise to the electorate. S&P's does state that should it's assumptions about business here prove wide of the mark - and investment does suffer as a result of uncertainties - a downgrade could follow.

Oddly enough, having chronicled this, the next question is 'does it matter'? Well, in short, not really. Even the downgrade by Moody's had been factored in by the markets prior to its announcement, and the expectation that S&P's and Fitch will follow suit is widely assumed. Will it cause markets to reappraise their levels of risk associated with UK bonds, now the AAA has been confirmed? Unlikely. Besides, the AAA rating is becoming an increasingly rare specimen these days. The stigma of suffering a downgrade has been severely diluted by the sheer quantity of downgrades that have taken place over the past few years. 

But this state of affairs does lead to another - perhaps more important - question. If the markets are regularly factoring in risk assessments to their operations weeks (usually) before any announcement on downgrades by the CRAs, and if the impact of a downgrade has been reduced to the extent that sovereigns are no longer worried by an announcement, are we witnessing the slow demise of the role of CRAs in international markets?