Why Markets Are Coming Undone

08/23/2011 9:00 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

The bungled downgrade of US credit by Standard & Poor’s shows just how far financial markets still have to go to understand the risks that remain.

On August 5, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit rating of the United States to AA+ from AAA.
What’s happened to the debt of the United States since then?

Treasuries have rallied and sent yields to historic lows. Last week the yield on a two-year Treasury was at 0.19%. The yield on a ten-year Treasury closed the week at 2.07%. That was slightly above the low set on Thursday of 1.97%. That was the lowest yield on the ten-year Treasury since 1950.

There’s no way to escape a certain amount of schadenfreude. There is pleasure, admit it, in seeing the market thumb its nose at S&P, the credit-rating company that got the mortgage-asset market so terribly wrong, and helped create the global financial crisis by giving AAA ratings to so much paper that quickly demonstrated that it didn’t deserve an AAA rating by collapsing in price as the underlying mortgages went sour.

But I wouldn’t let the grim pleasure at S&P discomfiture become your primary emotional reaction to the rally in US debt markets. That main emotion should be worry. This rally isn’t a sign of health in the financial markets.

Reason to Worry
First, the rally is a sign of just how much fear stalks global financial markets. It’s not so much that investors love US Treasuries, but that they hate almost everything else.

Money pouring into Treasuries is money that’s not going into loans or capital investments that expand the global economy. Money is cheap if you look only at Treasury yields, but it’s not readily available to all the creditworthy borrowers who need it.

Just ask a prospective homebuyer in the US who has been turned down for a mortgage. Or ask small-business owners in Japan or China who can’t get financing at anything less than ruinous rates—if they can get financing at all.

Second, the rally is a sign of just how unmoored the global financial system has become from past standards—and how much work needs to be done to create a new system.

It’s one thing to laugh at S&P’s ratings. It’s something else entirely to come up with a new system that accurately reflects credit risk and creditworthiness.

Without some system to create confidence among buyers and sellers, whole swaths of modern finance—the derivatives market comes to mind—become, at the least, less efficient and, at worst, frozen with indecision.

S&P’s decision to downgrade the credit rating of the United States—and the way that the company handled that decision—has shown how badly the current system is broken.

NEXT: S&P’s Bad Decision

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S&P’s Bad Decision
When S&P announced the downgrade, it got caught in a $2 trillion math error. S&P initially overestimated the size of future US deficits by $2 trillion, an error that Treasury officials rushed to publicize.

Standard & Poor’s admitted the error and lowered its projection for the ratio of government debt to gross domestic product for 2015 by two percentage points. In its initial downgrade, the company said that the ratio of US debt to GDP would be 77% in 2015, and hit 78% in 2021.

In truth, a shift from 77% to 75% doesn’t seem significant, if you buy into S&P’s framework for making its decision.

But instead of leaving the defense of its decision there, the company then managed to call into question its entire rationale for its downgrade. The $2 trillion math error wasn’t significant, S&P said, because it had based its decision on its judgment of US politics.

At that point, Congress had finally passed a package that combined an increase in the debt ceiling with $2.4 trillion in spending cuts over ten years. But S&P had calculated that it would take a $4 trillion package of cuts to demonstrate the US government’s commitment to long-term deficit reduction.

Realizing, I guess, that you can’t argue that a $2 trillion math error is insignificant but a $2 trillion shortfall in the deficit-reduction package is significant, S&P said its downgrade was based not on the result of the battle in Congress, but on what the company called the “extremely difficult” political discussions.

The “debate this year has highlighted a degree of uncertainty over the political policymaking process which we think is incompatible with the AAA rating,” S&P analyst David Beers said in a conference call after the downgrade.

To me, that kind of thinking makes it look like S&P is making it up as it goes along:

  • The trends in the US deficit numbers have been clear for a decade or more.
  • The demographic facts of life that have been driving the explosion in medical and retirement costs aren’t new.
  • And while US politics are nastier than ever, they don’t represent some sudden turn from fiscal responsibility to fiscal recklessness.

Congress is suddenly unwilling to deal honestly with the US deficit? Come on, S&P.

Several critics of the downgrade decision have questioned S&P’s sudden assertion of political expertise. They’ve certainly got a point. What expertise does this company have in political analysis?

To me, it’s the shift in criteria that’s more disturbing than the issue of credentials in political analysis for S&P. If we’re suddenly going to rate debt based on politics, won’t we be looking at downgrades across the debt landscape?

And if today’s credit ratings expand to political analysis, what might they expand to include tomorrow?

NEXT: Who’s Next?

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Who’s Next?
Just look at some of the anomalies that a political credit-rating element might have to address. For example, after the S&P downgrade, the United States has the same credit rating as Belgium.

Now, US politics may be difficult, but Belgium hasn’t had a government of any sort—the country’s parties are deadlocked and no one has been able to form a coalition government—for more than a year. If we’re going to start including political judgments in credit ratings, shouldn’t Belgium get a downgrade?

And how about Japan? The country:

  • carries the developed world’s highest debt-to-GDP ratio;
  • has the most rapidly aging population in an aging world;
  • seems mired in an endless recession;
  • and has a completely dysfunctional government, where any reform is blocked by an electoral system that leaves the real power in the hands of an aging rural cabal.

Shouldn’t Japan get a downgrade?

Once you start down this road, you quickly come to the conclusion that the credit ratings of governments at all levels need revision—and not on new, only recently discovered grounds.

For example, Fitch Ratings recently lowered its rating on New Jersey’s general-obligation bonds to AA- (the fourth-highest grade), citing “mounting budgetary pressure” from pension and employee benefit deficits, high state debt levels, and persistent budget gaps. Moody’s Investors Service had cut its rating to Aa3 in April and S&P cut its to AA- in February.

I’ve got a couple of problems with those downgrades. First, New Jersey failed to make the full level of payments required to fund its pension plans for much of the past decade. The ratings companies only discovered that this year?

Second, if the United States is AA+, can New Jersey be AA-? The United States can print money, but New Jersey can’t. Social Security needs a tweak, certainly, but its problems pale in comparison to those of New Jersey’s pension system.

And New Jersey’s fiscal problems may begin with pension funding, but they certainly don’t end there. The state’s voters demand property-tax relief, and the state faces a big bill for education, according to the state Supreme Court’s reading of the state constitution.

I don’t mean to pick on New Jersey—the state is merely one example of a problem that reaches from the overextended municipal governments of China to the national governments of the United States and France—even to asset-backed debt left over from the great mortgage meltdown.

Junky Financial Assets Still Around
The story in London, where I am right now, is about the biggest banks in the United Kingdom transferring billions in illiquid assets left over from financial-crisis days from their own balance sheets to those of their employee pension funds.

You might ask if the banks’ underfunded pension funds will suddenly get healthy with an infusion of assets that the banks haven’t been able to sell in the financial markets.

The world is still full of assets left over from the financial crisis that can’t be accurately rated—or priced. And now S&P’s downgrade of the United States reminds us that there’s a larger problem: another set of assets that need to be re-rated and re-priced.

How much of this risky stuff that needs re-rating is out there? How are investors going to re-rate it? And how much trust should anyone put in any new ratings, when the old ones turned out to be so problematic?

The difficulty in answering these questions explains part of the rush to US Treasuries. And it certainly supports the arguments of those who say the financial markets have a lot of healing to do before investors will see anything resembling the old normal.

Full disclosure: I don’t own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this post in my personal portfolio. The mutual fund I manage, Jubak Global Equity Fund, may or may not now own positions in any stock mentioned in this post. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of June, see the fund’s portfolio here.

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