Take credit ratings with a grain of salt

Credit rating agencies are making ominous noises about the US government's rating. They're not utterly wrong, but it may be time to re-assess the agencies' role.

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If the US credit rating is downgraded from its AAA status, as Moody's and Standard & Poor's threatened to do last week, it would shake a pillar of the global economy. And Standard & Poor's went one further, spelling out to US politicians exactly by how much the US deficit should be cut.

Is a warning on US debt warranted? Almost certainly. But should a ratings agency be setting budgetary policy? Not likely.

There have been some bitter pills in recent weeks. Greece and Portugal's sovereign debt ratings were downgraded to junk as the euro zone contagion spreads. That had the major EU countries crying foul at the agencies' "interference" and calling for reforms that would reduce the influence of the big three - Moody's, Standard & Poor's and Fitch.

The irony is that so much controversy has been stirred up by statements that look remarkably like common sense. Greece and Portugal (and several other EU countries, for that matter) are saddled with debts that they simply cannot pay. And the United States nears its own $14.3 trillion debt ceiling ahead of the August 2 deadline.

The ratings agencies might be criticised for making dire pronouncements in the middle of a crisis, but equally we should ask the question: why did they wait so long?

Not everybody has been so quiescent. China's Dagong credit rating agency says it is just "a matter of time and extent" before it downgrades US debt, again. Already Dagong values it several notches lower than the western agencies do.

But the big three agencies still punch above their weight and their statements move markets. This, despite the admitted failures that led to the last financial crisis, when worthless subprime debt was also ranked AAA. At the time, hard questions were asked about the agencies' capability to fairly evaluate the same companies that paid their bills.

Now EU countries are questioning their capability to rate sovereign economies. It is the right question for the wrong reasons. The point is not to quash bad news about euro zone debt levels, but to recognise that the agencies are not omniscient when it comes to risk.

After the mistakes leading to 2008 and 2009, the agencies defended themselves by saying credit ratings - in that case, totally inaccurate - were just "opinions". It's time to take them at their word.