Assessing the significance of credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s historic decision to downgrade the debt outlook for the USA is complex. But significant it definitely is.
S&P and Moody’s, which between them control 80% of the market, act as intelligence gatherers and forecasters on behalf of capitalist investors. They examine relevant aspects of an institutional issuer of debt – usually a corporate entity or a state body – and assess the risk to an investor of placing their money with that institution.
The higher the risk, the more the issuer of debt has to pay to the investor in interest or “yield”, and consequently, the more the corporation has to make from its operations, or in the case of a state, the more it has to extract from its citizens in taxes.
So, you might say, the increasing burden being placed on the populations of effectively bankrupt countries like Ireland and Greece is largely on the say-so of these agencies.
Like all these agencies, S&P is a competitive, for-profit operation. In order to keep its customers paying their fees – and that is mostly the corporations whose performance is being assessed – it needs to show that it is getting its assessments right, more than it gets them wrong.
In the run-up to the 2007-8 global crash, S&P was itself mesmerised by the hysterical expansion of fantasy finance in which products derived from the issue of traditional forms of credit and debt based on real value multiplied the amount in circulation many times over. The big players issued monumental quantities of derivatives and they paid the ratings agencies huge fees to provide the market with favourable assessments.
So the agencies failed to provide any warning about the impossible state of Lehman Brothers which crashed out of existence in 2008.
Governments, on the other hand, don’t pay the agencies to assess the health of their economies, or to assess the risk that they might default on interest payments to the investors who lend them money through the bonds they purchase.
The rating agencies make their assessments as part of the fees paid by corporations who want to know whether the state’s debt is more or less risky. The big, or even only question at stake is: will the government act sufficiently strongly to provide the conditions for the corporations to intensify the extraction of profit from their population?
So when S&P decides to downgrade the outlook for US debt, it is taking into account many factors. These days the judgement is more political than it is economic.
The on-going Punch & Judy style shadow-play between Obama and the Republicans over the $4-5 trillion programme of cuts to be visited upon the American people is one aspect of the analysis.
As one economist observed: "The key question is whether the gridlocked US political system can respond in time to avert a bond market revolt."
Some commentators say that S&P’s action is a warning to Obama from the world of finance. If they don’t crack down hard enough, investment money will go elsewhere and interest rates will rise.
But they’ll also be assessing the likely contagion effect of the wildfire of revolt spreading outwards from Tahrir Square throughout the Middle East, North Africa and taking in Gabon in Central Africa.
They’ll be weighing up the likely outcome of the political struggle against the regimes that have ensured the supply of cheap oil to fuel growth over the last forty years.
They’ll be closely examining the protest movement in Europe for signs that it is moving beyond resistance. And they’ll be studying developments like the People’s Assembly arising from the occupation of the State Capitol in Wisconsin.
It’s no wonder S&P has downgraded the US government’s prospects for paying back its loans while continuing to borrow at relatively low interest rates.