Rating Agencies to Government: Go Back to College!
Remember those days as a young adult, when you were a starving student in college, doing everything you possible could in your power to not run out of money (OK, if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, just play along). You know what I’m talking about… Corn Flakes for breakfast, PB&J for lunch, and maybe splurge with a little Mac & Cheese or Top Ramen for dinner. Well, the rating agencies, especially Standard & Poor’s (S&P) with their long-term sovereign credit rating downgrade on the U.S. from AAA rated to AA+ rated, are signaling our U.S. government to cut back on the champagne and caviar spending and go back to living like a college student.
Rent-A-Cops Assert Power
The rating agencies may have been asleep at the switch during the tech bubble (Enron & WorldCom) and the financial crisis of 2008-2009 (i.e., ratings of toxic mortgage backed securities), but they are doing their best to reassert themselves as credible security rating entities. By the way, as long as S&P has some wise critical advice for the U.S. government regarding fiscal responsibility, I have a suggestion for S&P: When providing a fresh ratings downgrade, please limit error estimations to less than $2,000,000,000,000.00 – this is exactly what S&P did in its ratings downgrade. Time will tell whether S&P can maintain its role as credit market policeman or will be mocked like those unarmed, overweight rent-a-cops you see at the shopping mall.
In reality, S&P’s moves represent little fundamental change, especially since these moves have been signaled for months (S&P initially lowered its outlook on the U.S. to negative on 4/18/11). I know there will be some that panic at this announcement (won’t be the first or last time), but should anyone really be shocked by an independent entity telling the U.S. government they are spending too much money and hold too much debt? If my memory serves me correctly, Americans have been screaming S&P’s same message for years – I think the rise of the Tea-Party, the results of the mid-term elections, and the tone of the debt ceiling debate may indicate a few people have caught onto this unsustainable fiscal disaster.
Two Simple Choices
As I have said for some time, these horrendously difficult issues will get resolved. The only question is who will resolve this negligent fiscal behavior? There are only two simple answers: 1) Politicians can proactively chip away at the problem with solutions my first grader has already identified (spend less and/or increase revenue); or 2) Financial Market Vigilantes can rip apart financial markets and force borrowing costs to the stratosphere. Option number one is preferable for everyone, and for those that don’t understand option number two, I refer you to Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Spain.
If you’re getting sick of listening to debt and spending issues now, I will gently remind you this is an election year, so the nauseating debates are only going to get worse from here. I encourage everyone to make a game of this fiscal discussion, and do enough homework to the point you have informed, convicted opinions about our country’s fiscal situation. Unlike in periods past, when Americans could take a nap and ride the U.S. gravy train to prosperity, the ultra-competitive globalized game no longer allows us to rest on our laurels of being the world’s strongest superpower. There are a lot more people playing in our game outside our borders, and many of them are stronger, faster, smarter, and more efficient. Decisions being made today, tomorrow, and over the next year will have profound effects on millions of Americans, myself included. So as the government prioritizes spending programs and debates methods of raising revenue, I advise you to go back to your college days and decide whether you prefer Corn Flakes, PB&J, and Mac & Cheese. If voters don’t pressure politicians into doing the right thing, then we’ll all be collecting food stamps from the Financial Market Vigilantes.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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