S&P's Warning on U.S. Debt Prompts Another Front Page Washington Post Editorial

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Tuesday, 19 April 2011 06:58

The Washington Post, which routinely uses its news section to promote its editorial positions, ran a front page editorial on the implications of S&P's announcement that it has a negative outlook on U.S. debt. The piece asserted that:

"a downgrade [of U.S. debt] would drive up the cost of borrowing and throw into question the global role of the Treasury bond."

Actually, it is not at all clear that a downgrade would have this effect. The interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds fell by 3 basis points yesterday. This indicates that investors were not too troubled by the risk of a downgrade.

S&P did downgrade Japan's debt back in 2002. This had no notable impact on the market at the time. Currently Japan pays less than 1.5 percent interest on its 10-year government bonds, the lowest of any country in the world. Since S&P's downgrade did not seem to force Japan to pay higher interest rates, it is not clear why the Post would expect that a downgrade would force the U.S. to pay higher interest rates.

It also would have been helpful to provide readers with some background on S&P. It rated hundreds of billions of dollars of subprime mortgage backed securities as investment grade at the peak of the housing bubble. It also gave top ratings to Lehman, AIG, Bear Stearns, and Enron until just before their collapse. In other words, it has a dismal track record which may be one reason why investors seem to ignore its assessment of sovereign debt.

Finally, S&P is also involved in a major political battle at the moment. An amendment proposed Al Franken would end the current system under which a company issuing a bond selects the rating agency. Instead the Securities and Exchange Commission would pick the agency. This amendment would remove the obvious conflict of interest from having the issuer select the rater.

This change was delayed for 2 years by a conference provision inserted by Representative Barney Frank, who was head of the Financial Services Committee at the time. S&P would undoubtedly like this delay to be made permanent. 

It would have been appropriate to discuss S&P's track record as well as its political interests in a major story like this in order to provide readers with a better basis to assess its debt warnings. However S&P's warnings coincide with the Post's editorial stance calling for major cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other areas of social spending. This could explain the failure to provide readers with the necessary background information.