Standard & Poor’s, rebuked by Warren Buffett in August after downgrading the U.S. over government gridlock, is again injecting itself into the political process, just as European leaders are poised to meet for a summit aimed at ending the region’s sovereign-debt crisis.
The ratings firm put Germany, France and 13 other euro-area nations on review for a downgrade yesterday, saying “continuing disagreements among European policy makers on how to tackle” the region’s debt crisis risk damaging their financial stability. The move came four months after S&P cut the U.S. to AA+, saying “extremely difficult” political discussions over how to reduce America’s more than $1 trillion budget deficit tainted the credit quality of the world’s largest economy.
Bondholders questioned the timing of S&P’s move, with European Union leaders planning to meet Dec. 8-9 in Brussels to end a crisis that led to bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and now threatens to engulf Italy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had presented a plan earlier in the day to rewrite the EU’s governing treaty to allow tighter economic cooperation.
“S&P should back off,” Anthony Valeri, a market strategist with LPL Financial in San Diego, which oversees $330 billion, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It complicates the job of the EU leaders to resolve the debt problem.”
Grades may be lowered by one level for Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Netherlands and Luxembourg, and as many as two steps for the other governments if the summit results don’t satisfy S&P’s criteria, the firm said. More than $8.1 trillion of government debt would be affected if S&P does downgrade all the nations, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Germany and France are rated AAA.
“The crisis in the euro zone has now reached a level that systemic stresses have become more tangible and a bigger threat near term,” Moritz Kraemer, S&P’s head of European sovereign ratings, said today in a conference call with reporters. “It has become a crisis of euro zone governance.”
Kraemer denied that the company was trying to influence politics.
“Of course we’re not in the business of policy making, that’s the business of elected officials,” he said. “Our role is to assess the risk to capital markets investors and call those risks as we see them developing.”
The yield on France’s 10-year bond jumped 12 basis points as of 9:13 a.m. in New York, with the similar maturity German bund yield reversing an earlier advance to trade little changed. The Stoxx Europe 600 Index lost 0.3 percent and the euro weakened 0.2 percent to $1.3371.
The move to tie ratings to the outcome of the summit drew criticism from European Central Bank Governing Council member Ewald Nowotny of Austria, who said today at a conference in Vienna that S&P was “politically motivated” with the announcement.
“The timing and the scope of this warning has a clearly political context -- a rating agency has entered the political arena,” he said.
European Central Bank governing council member Christian Noyer lambasted S&P for basing its judgment on politics.
“They changed their methodology and it’s now more linked to political factors and less to fundamentals,” Noyer said today at the Financium conference in Paris. “The rating agencies fueled the crisis in 2008 and we can question whether they’re not doing the same thing in the current crisis.”
S&P Was Right
S&P was right to assess the ability of European policy makers to handle the crisis as politics are now driving economic outcomes, according to Ashok Parameswaran, an emerging-markets analyst at Invesco Advisers Inc.
“S&P’s view is that the political outcome will also drive creditworthiness, and I don’t think anyone in their right mind would dispute this point,” he said today in an e-mail.
Finding a solution to Europe’s debt crisis took on greater urgency last month as yields on Italy’s debt surged past the 7 percent threshold that led Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek aid. Italy has 500 billion euros ($669 billion) of bonds maturing in the next three years, more than the current size of the EU’s rescue fund.
In a joint statement yesterday, the governments of France and Germany said they “recognize” the move by S&P and “affirm their conviction that the common proposals made today will strengthen coordination of budget and economic policy, and promote stability, competitiveness and growth.”
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said today in Vienna that S&P’s warning will help force European leaders to ratchet up efforts to resolve the crisis this week. The statement will prompt European leaders “to do what we’ve promised, namely to take the necessary decisions step-by-step and to win back the confidence of global investors,” he said.
New York-based S&P, a unit of McGraw-Hill Cos., downgraded the U.S. to AA+ on Aug. 5 from AAA, saying the U.S. government is becoming “less stable, less effective and less predictable.”
While the S&P 500 Index of U.S. stocks plunged 6.7 percent on the first trading day after the downgrade, Treasuries rallied, sending yields to record lows. Treasuries due in 10 years or more are 2011’s best-performing sovereign securities, returning 26 percent as of Nov. 30, according to Bloomberg/EFFAS indexes.
The ratings company’s decision on the U.S. was flawed by a $2 trillion error, according to the Treasury Department. S&P disputed the Treasury’s assertions and said using the department’s preferred spending measures in its analysis didn’t affect its credit grade.
Buffett, the billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and the world’s most successful investor, said S&P erred and the U.S. should be rated “quadruple-A.” Buffett is also the largest shareholder of Moody’s Corp., the parent of Moody’s Investors Service.
Downgrades of Germany and France would affect the rating of the 780 billion euro European Financial Stability Facility, the bailout fund for struggling euro member countries that has funded rescue packages for Greece, Ireland and Portugal partially through bond sales. The EFSF may lose its top credit grade if any of its guarantors are downgraded, S&P said in a statement today.
If the EFSF has to pay higher interest on its bonds, it may not be able to provide as much funding for indebted nations. Yields on the EFSF’s 3.375 percent bonds due in July 2021 rose 2 basis points at 9:18 a.m. today in New York to 3.62 percent, according to Bloomberg prices.
Regulators have tried and failed to rein in credit-rating companies, which the U.S. Congress has said helped fuel the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression by assigning top grades to subprime mortgage bonds, Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. in New York, said in a telephone interview.
“Why are they pulling the trigger now?” Rupkey said. “There’s a danger of putting too much power in the hands of these institutions and causing in effect a race to the bottom.”
The EU proposed rules last month to increase regulation of the credit-rating companies while postponing plans to ban them from giving assessments of countries negotiating international bailouts. Michel Barnier, the EU’s financial services chief, said that he didn’t think S&P was retaliating.
‘Just an Opinion’
“It’s just an opinion,” he said in an e-mailed statement from Brussels today. “I don’t think that the agencies are avenging themselves against our proposals. I can’t imagine that.”
S&P also cited “high levels of government and household indebtedness across a large area of the eurozone” and the increased risk of a recession in 2012 as reasons for yesterday’s change in outlook. The firm said economic output in Spain, Portugal and Greece will likely fall next year, and that there’s now a 40 percent chance of a decline for the entire region.
The “negative” outlook on CC rated Greece, which is 10 steps below investment quality, wasn’t changed, as its grade “connotes our belief that there is a relatively high near-term probability of default,” S&P said. The firm kept its “negative” outlook on Cyprus’s long-term rating and placed its short-term rating on “creditwatch with negative implications.”
‘Full Fiscal Union’
Europe may stem its debt crisis by moving to a “full fiscal union” in which all countries assume responsibility for the euro area’s sovereign debt or by “a much larger commitment” by the ECB to support sovereign-debt markets, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said Nov. 30 in a research note.
The threat of a downgrade may make it more difficult for Merkel to convince the German people that supporting peripheral nations is in their interest, Noel Hebert, a credit strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Securities USA Inc. in New York, said yesterday in a telephone interview.
“If it starts threatening the creditworthiness of the country itself, that’s a much harder row to hoe for Germany,” Hebert said. “It heightens the internal tensions that Merkel has politically.”
Sovereign Issuer: Ratings Placed on Watch: Austria AAA Finland AAA France AAA Germany AAA Luxembourg AAA Netherlands AAA Slovenia AA-/A-1+ Slovakia A+/A-1 Portugal BBB-/A-3 Ireland BBB+/A-2 Malta A/A-1 Italy A/A-1 Spain AA-/A-1+ Estonia AA-/A-1+ Belgium AA