U.S. May Lose AAA Rating Even With a Debt Deal, BlackRock, Templeton Say
BlackRock Inc., Franklin Templeton Investments, Loomis Sayles & Co., Pacific Investment Management Co. and Western Asset Management said the U.S. faces losing its top-level debt rating as officials struggle to raise the $14.3 trillion borrowing limit and reduce spending.
Investors are warning a cut is likely as President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner argue over how to increase the debt ceiling, while also trying to curb borrowing. The government needs to boost the cap by Aug. 2 so it can keep paying its bills, according to the Treasury Department.
The comments suggest that the world’s biggest bond managers are resigned to the fact that the U.S. rating will be cut. Standard & Poor’s, which has rated the U.S. AAA since 1941, said July 14 that the chance of a downgrade is 50 percent in the next three months and it may cut the nation as soon as August if there isn’t a “credible” plan to reduce the nation’s deficit.
“Addressing the debt ceiling is of course very important, but addressing it alone doesn’t avert a downgrade,” Barbara Novick, a co-founder and vice chairman at BlackRock, the world’s biggest money manager with $3.66 trillion in assets, said in an interview. “Without a credible plan to cut the deficit, that’s a real issue.”
Obama has said the nation’s record borrowings may “do serious damage” to the U.S. economy by diverting tax dollars to interest payments. Yields indicate investors are favoring bank or company debt over Treasuries, raising concern the credibility of government debt is waning.
Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings have also said they may cut the nation’s top-level sovereign ranking if officials fail to resolve the stalemate.
“If the U.S. defaults, there would be massive consequences,” Pacific Investment Management Co.’s Mohamed El- Erian, chief executive and co-chief investment officer at the world’s biggest manager of bond funds, said in a radio interview on “Bloomberg Surveillance” with Tom Keene. “People are concerned, but they sort of think it’s a very, very low probability, and we would agree.”
The ratings may be reduced because politicians probably won’t agree on a plan to trim spending, said Kathleen Gaffney, co-manager of the $21 billion Loomis Sayles Bond Fund.
“I’m pretty certain that at least by one agency we’re going to see a downgrade,” Gaffney, who is based in Boston, said yesterday in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Street Smart.” Treasuries will “continue to be a large, liquid market whether it’s AAA or AA,” she said.
Gaffney’s fund returned 14 percent in the past year, beating 98 percent of its competitors, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The TED spread, the difference between what lenders and the U.S. government pay to borrow for three months, narrowed to 18.7 basis points yesterday, the least since March.
Debentures from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), the largest retailer, and Paris-based utility EDF SA (EDF), both rated in the second-highest AA level, are the best-performing investment-grade corporate securities globally this month through July 25, Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes show.
An index of corporate debt with the same AAA rating that the U.S. is at risk of losing is outperforming Treasuries by 0.13 percent, the most since March.
“The longer-term implications are that a downgrade could be bad for our currency and this could raise our borrowing Costs,” Stephen Walsh, the chief investment officer of Western Asset Management, the Pasadena, California-based fixed-income unit of Legg Mason Inc., said in an interview. Walsh oversees about $365 billion in bond assets.
The 10-year Treasury yield rose five basis points to 3 percent as of 1:17 p.m. in New York, according to Bloomberg Bond Trader prices. The budget stalemate hasn’t been enough to push the rate to its decade-long average of 4.05 percent.
“Our growing debt could cost us jobs and do serious damage to the economy,” Obama said in a speech July 25. “Interest rates could climb for everyone who borrows money: the homeowner with a mortgage, the student with a college loan, the corner store that wants to expand.”
A House vote on Speaker Boehner’s two-step plan to raise the debt ceiling was postponed yesterday, casting doubt on whether lawmakers and Obama can come to an agreement before Aug. 2. Boehner has said Obama is seeking a “blank check.”
Investors may question the creditworthiness of the U.S., Christopher Molumphy, chief investment officer for Franklin Templeton’s fixed-income group, wrote in a report July 25 that his company distributed today by e-mail.
“Continued doubts about a longer-term solution to the U.S.’s federal deficit may well threaten the country’s AAA credit rating and the status of U.S. Treasuries as assets previously perceived as virtually ‘risk-free,’” according to Molumphy, who is based in San Mateo, California. He helps oversee $734.2 billion at the company.
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