U.S. Outlook Revised to Stable by S&P as Fiscal Risks Diminish

The U.S.’s AA+ credit rating outlook was increased to stable from negative by Standard & Poor’s, based on receding fiscal risks, less than two years after the company stripped the world’s largest economy of its top ranking.

The U.S. has a less than one-in-three likelihood of a downgrade in the “near term” with the revision, S&P said today in a statement. The New York-based company said it sees “tentative improvements,” such as the deal politicians reached to resolve what became known as the fiscal cliff and through spending cuts in the Budget Control Act of 2011.

U.S. government debt as a percentage of gross domestic product will likely be stable at about 84 percent for the next few years, S&P said. That may give policy makers additional time to address spending on Social Security and health care, which is expected to grow as the population ages, S&P said.

S&P, the world’s largest credit rater, for the first time cut the U.S. ranking from AAA in August 2011, contributing to a global stock-market rout and sending yields on Treasury debt to record lows as investors sought a refuge in the world’s most easily traded securities.

“We see some improvement lately in terms of moving, if gradually and hesitantly, but nevertheless toward some fiscal consolidation,” Nikola Swann, an S&P credit analyst, said today in a webcast. “With the fiscal cliff deal earlier this year, there was at least some limited willingness and ability to compromise shown between the two parties, even if it was a last-minute deal.”

Opposite Direction

Downgrades don’t necessarily correspond to higher borrowing costs. Yields on sovereign securities moved in the opposite direction from what ratings suggested in 53 percent of 32 upgrades, downgrades and changes in credit outlook last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg on Moody’s Investors Service and S&P grades.

Yields on benchmark 10-year Treasuries dropped 0.74 percentage point in the seven weeks following the August 2011 downgrade to a then-record 1.67 percent.

Treasuries declined today on bets the increase in the outlook boosted the odds that the Federal Reserve may slow the pace of monetary stimulus.

“More positive news on the economy will be something that guys will say helps the Fed out with the case to start pulling back,” said Sean Murphy, a trader at Societe Generale SA in New York, one of the 21 primary dealers that trade with the U.S. central bank.


Yields on 10-year notes rose four basis points, or 0.04 percentage point, to 2.21 percent at 4:31 p.m. in New York. The 30-year yield increased four basis points, or 0.04 percentage point, to 3.37 percent after touching 3.38 percent, the highest since April 2012.

“The improving U.S. economy is boosting government revenues, the sequester has trimmed spending, and uncertainties about growth in China and Europe make the United States the preferred destination for global investors,” said Phillip Swagel, former Treasury assistant secretary for economic policy in the George W. Bush administration and now a professor at the University of Maryland. Automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, began to go into effect March 1.

The U.S. downgrade by S&P in 2011 reflected in part the political impasse over raising the debt limit as well as the government’s lack of a plan to rein in its debt load and weakening “effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policy making and political institutions.”

‘Divisive Debates’

“We believe that our current ’AA+’ rating already factors in a lesser ability of U.S. elected officials to react swiftly and effectively to public-finance pressures over the longer term in comparison with officials of some more highly rated sovereigns, and we expect repeated divisive debates over raising the debt ceiling,” S&P said in today’s statement.

Better-than-forecast economic growth stemming from the private sector and remittances from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have spurred the Congressional Budget Office to reduce its U.S. deficit forecasts, S&P said.

“We do not see material risks to our favorable view of the flexibility and efficacy of U.S. monetary policy,” S&P said. “U.S. economic performance will match or exceed its peers’ in the coming years. We forecast that the external position of the U.S. on a flow basis will not deteriorate.”

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, said the outlook change shows S&P is backtracking from its downgrade.

“At some point they have to get back in line and get the U.S. government back up to AAA,” Baker said. “This is the first step.”

Fitch, Moody’s

Moody’s and Fitch Ratings assign the U.S. their top AAA rankings with negative outlooks. Moody’s has said U.S. policy makers must address debt loads projected to rise later this decade to avoid a downgrade.

Steven Hess, lead sovereign analyst for Moody’s in the U.S., said in an e-mail that the firm’s “rating outlook will likely be either moved back to stable or the rating downgraded during the course of this year.” Daniel Noonan, a spokesman for Fitch Ratings, said the company is likely to complete its review of the U.S. credit rating by early July.

Mary Miller, the Treasury’s undersecretary for domestic finance, told reporters in Washington today that she’s “pleased” that S&P is “recognizing the progress in the U.S. economy and fiscal results.”

Deficits Narrowing

The U.S. posted a $1.1 trillion deficit last year. President Barack Obama in April presented a budget that the administration says will reduce the shortfall for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 to $744 billion, or 4.4 percent of the economy.

On May 14, a government report said the budget deficit will shrink this fiscal year to $642 billion, the smallest shortfall in five years.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reduced its estimate of this year’s likely shortfall by more than $200 billion compared with its February projection. The agency pointed to stronger-than-expected tax receipts and payments to the Treasury by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“Predictions of a sequester-driven doomsday have proved incorrect,” said Guy LeBas, chief fixed-income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott LLC in Philadelphia.

“S&P is basically saying economic growth is more important than austerity” in driving ratings changes, he said. “For all the talk of U.S. deficit being driven by a spending mismatch, the rising tide of stronger economic growth is what’s really supporting tax boats.”

Nine Years

S&P’s Swann said no country that has been dropped from AAA by S&P had regained the top rating in less than nine years.

“If you look at this like S&P were rating a company called America Inc., they’re basically saying the company’s operations won’t take the hit over the next few quarters despite the sequester,” said Stephen Myrow, managing director at Washington-based ACG Analytics Inc. “But the big issues, like the company’s health-care costs and pension funding, still remain for the long-term outlook.”

The improved outlook is unlikely to soften demands from Republicans in Congress for deeper budget cuts, said Jay Bryson, global economist with Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“The problem with the U.S. is not necessarily the short-term budget dynamics, it’s the long-term budget dynamics,” Bryson said. “So even if you get the short-term reprieve of not getting downgraded by S&P, I think many Republican lawmakers will still say, yes, but we still have this long-term budget issue.”

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