Friday, 22 February 2013

It's Finally Happened - Moody's Downgrades the UK

Moody's finally confirmed market rumours this evening and downgraded the UK's government bond rating from AAA to AA1. It cited several factors, including the sluggish growth outlook for medium-long term, anticipating that weak growth will last into the second half of the decade, posing challenges for the government's fiscal consolidation programme. The consequences of this include the government's "high and rising debt burden" which reduces the capacity for shock absorption on the government's balance sheets. Importantly, because of the extended time frame of the fiscal consolidation plans, taking them into the next parliament, the level of risk involved has increased. Now, instead of peaking in 2014, Moody's expects the UK's gross general debt to GDP to peak in 2016 at 96 per cent, which is up from just over 90 per cent now.

Despite these problems, Moody's stresses that the UK still retains high creditworthiness, due to its competitive, well-diversified economy, previous and future fiscal consolidation and robust institutional structure. It's favourable debt structures, bond maturity lengths, and the resulting reduced interest rate risk on UK debt are all additional factors in the UK's favour. Moody's seems to believe that the government's fiscal consolidation plan will, in time, be fulfilled, given the UK's underlying economic strengths. The ratings agency does mention that the UK's exposure to the Eurozone is an issue that may become more urgent depending on how the crisis in that area progresses, however the contagion is stated to be mitigated by the UK's independent monetary policy and the status of sterling as a global reserve currency.

Moody's had changed the outlook from stable to negative in February 2012, however today's downgrade shifts the outlook back to stable. Speaking this evening in response to the downgrade, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne took the news as a "stark reminder" of the troubles being faced by Britain, and vowed to "redouble" his efforts to reduce the deficit and maintain historically low interest rates for families. Interestingly, the downgrade comes less than a month ahead of the Chancellor's budget on March 20th in which he will outline fiscal policy for the coming months. 

But will the downgrade actually make any real difference? 

The short answer to this is, well, economically no, but politically, maybe. For a start, bond markets are usually a couple of months ahead of ratings agencies when it comes to anticipating difficulties and slow growth prospects, and sterling has fallen significantly against the dollar over the past few months. This has the advantage of making exports cheaper, helping the UK economy, but it tends to signal that all is not well for economic outlooks (regardless of rumours of currency wars). More to the point, rumours have been circulating for some weeks - some even publicly - that the UK is on the verge of a downgrade. The announcement tonight by Moody's should not have surprised anyone. Will bond yields increase dramatically when the markets open on Monday morning? Unlikely. And considering the role call of countries who have been downgraded over the past few years, the UK is simply the latest to join the list.

But the political issue is slightly trickier. Like other political leaders across the western world, Osborne staked a good deal of political capital on maintaining the AAA rating. I recently posted about the French reaction to their downgrade from AAA. But it's loss in the UK may prove to be a double-edged sword. While it may force reappraisal of fiscal policy, it might also give the Chancellor some room to breathe and reassess his options.

Undoubtedly it marks a recognition by a CRA that the deficit reduction plan is not working as successfully as planned, and that plans for growth haven't produced the desired results. Fiscal policy to get Britain moving after the recession focused around shifting from domestic consumption to an export-oriented base. But as nearly 40 per cent of UK exports are destined for Europe, the ongoing recessions there are less than encouraging. You simply cannot build growth by exporting to contracting economies. The good news is that the markets still appear to have faith in the political and economic ambitions of the UK government. Bond yields remain persistently low, despite some warning of a collapse in the bond markets as seen by Greece. The economic reputation of the UK remains intact, but questions are likely to be asked over the coming days about the political will to stick to austerity, especially given the backlash against pure austerity in other parts of the world, notably Japan and France. It will be interesting to see, therefore, if the Chancellor's "plan A" will be "tweaked" slightly to take account of the latest developments, and shift slightly away from austerity towards growth.

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