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Making sense of India’s credit rating palpitations

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The financial media in India and the mainstream English newspapers are sparing no effort to announce their alarm over the feint by a credit rating agency, Standard and Poor’s, to lower India’s sovereign credit rating. Standard and Poor’s (no, I don’t like the ampersand) is one of the three large agencies which the movers of global capital rely on to tell them where to move illusory money, the other two being Moody’s and Fitch.

As you can see from the tone and tenor of India’s craven business press – all of which are beholden to the country’s big corporations (cross-holdings are common) and which cheer every new sally in the direction of share bazaar capitalism made by the Ministry of Finance and Department of Commerce – their writers and columnists, their reporters and correspondents seem immobilised by rating fear.

The Business Standard reported: Global rating agency Standard & Poor’s on Monday cautioned India might become the first BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) country to lose its investment-grade rating, unless growth issues were addressed immediately. The credit rating agency cited slowing GDP growth and political roadblocks in economic policy making as some of the factors that could lead to such an action.

The Mint commented: Some economists questioned the content and timing of the S&P report, titled Will India Be The First BRIC Fallen Angel?, which came some two months after the credit assessor lowered the outlook on India’s BBB- rating to “negative” from “stable”. The release of the report on Monday triggered a fall in the rupee and caused the benchmark index of BSE to slump. India was upgraded to investment grade in 2007. “In our view, setbacks or reversals in India’s path toward a more liberal economy could hurt its long-term growth prospects and, thus, its credit quality,” S&P analysts Joydeep Mukherji and Takahira Ogawa wrote in the research report dated 8 June.

The Economic Times commented: In an unusually direct reference to what it perceives to be poor quality of the nation’s political leadership, S&P has expressed concerns that ballooning government expenses, widening trade deficit and political vacuum could lead to protectionist policies. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom the agency described as “unelected”, a reference to Singh’s membership of the Rajya Sabha, is battling more with party colleagues over policy than with cantankerous allies often blamed for policy paralysis, the rating agency said. It fears that government policies, which in some instances are aimed to benefit what the report refers to as “politically well-connected firms”, could result in a populist backlash against liberal economic policies. Heightened populism to counter the political fallout of corruption scandals could slow economic growth further, and weaken the already-battered fiscal position.

What do the credit rating agencies do for India? What do these three (and their counterparts in India) have remotely to do with the lives and well-being of the 800 million rural Indians (there are 355 districts whose populations are over a million), or the urban poor in India’s 53 million-plus cities? They are among the tools with which ‘reform’ is grafted onto a country in order to further immiserate the poor and annex natural resources for a global upper middle class whose ranks are being swelled by India’s new rich. They are among the staunchest advocates of ‘austerity’ in the belief (backed by kilogrammes of elegantly designed working papers from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and yes the Asian Development Bank too) that such measures revive investor confidence. Credit rating agencies are the canaries of this intangible called investor confidence, and it ought to be seen as an intolerable affront to India that our people and our myriad economies are to be encapsulated – absurdly and so irrelevant – by the meaningless equations of Standard and Poor’s and its cousins.

“It is a hallmark of the crisis, that every effort the government makes to end it, within “neo-liberal” framework, will only succeed in worsening it,” said Prabhat Patnaik in ‘The End of the “Shine”‘ (People’s Democracy, 10 June 2012). The role of these agencies is to legitimise the enticement of finance back into an economy to keep its bubble spherical. Hence the worried tones of India’s business press, because far more worrying to them (as it is to the 5% of urban Indians who are the audience for this media, who control the flows of money and commodities and who exercise political power) is the spectre of a collapsed bubble being beyond recovery. That is why, every effort on the part of the government to tighten monetary policy in the belief that this would curb inflation and revive ‘investor confidence’ (currently viewed by the ruling alliance with more reverence than it accords to India’s Constitution) will hasten the economy’s downturn.

These are not uncoordinated gambits. In the latest issue of the IMF’s journal, Finance and Development, an article has discussed how “the relatively low-hanging fruit has been picked, and the harder, more exacting, job of addressing tougher problems lies ahead”. (The language sounds neutral but is loaded with violence.) The article goes on to outline an incomplete reform list: “identifying and building tools — still in the early stages of development — to mitigate systemic risk; improving the ability of the authorities to deal with the aftermath if the tools designed to prevent systemic events fail; and providing a framework for financial intermediation (the transfer of savings to investments) to assist in strong and stable economic growth, without overly prescriptive regulation.”

The IMF likes credit rating agencies; they are invaluable for the Fund’s agenda. Their work allows borrowers “to access global and domestic markets and attract investment funds, thereby adding liquidity to markets that would otherwise be illiquid”. The IMF’s Global Financial Stability Report 2010 (Chapter 3), ‘Sovereigns, Funding and Systemic Liquidity’ (2010 October), had said that these ratings “influence market prices, and that downgrades through the investment-grade barrier trigger market reactions… shows that their market impact is associated not only with new information, but also with a ‘certification’ role, though this is most evident through their use of ‘outlooks’, ‘reviews’, and ‘watches’ (pre-rating change warnings) rather than actual rating changes”.

Not content with the sophistication of the regime denoted by the alphabetic identifiers such as AAA, AA or BBB  and the pluses and minuses appended thereunto or removed therefrom – or more likely anticipating that the means used to ‘tend’ bubbles by the agencies was as likely to be used as political ammunition as it was to be cunningly exploited by the commodity traders and their money market partners – India’s Ministry of Finance this year developed an index of relative ratings of sovereigns. This it has called the Comparative Rating Index of Sovereigns. What will such an index serve? “Given that existing ratings do not give an idea of the inter se rankings of various economies with respect to the performance of the others, this index addresses an important conceptual lacuna,” the paper has explained. “The results reveal major changes in relative ratings of various countries, driven largely by the rapid downgrades of some European economies following the global financial crisis.”

And so we have the ‘Comparative Rating Index for Sovereigns (CRIS): A Report Based on “The Relativity of Sovereigns: A New Index of Sovereign Credit Ratings and an Analysis of How Nations Fared over the Last Six Years’ (2012 March). This is the ‘let’s pat ourselves on the back regardless of what the rating agencies say’ argument, and it is a sorry effort to lend an ephemeral shine to the old India Shining metaphor (insubstantial as that was, overused as it came to be). That is why the outcome of this indigenised index is that “India’s Comparative Rating Index for Sovereigns has improved over the six years from 2007 to 2012 by about 2.98% while its rank moved up from 61st to 55th… The US has gone from the top of the chart to the 13th position though it still improved its CRIS score by 2.12%… Some of the largest falls were among European economies and Japan. Greece fell by 71 positions, Ireland 68, Iceland 61, Portugal, 53, Spain 36 and Japan 21. BRICS economies show continuous improvement and the global financial crisis does not seem to have impacted them adversely in terms of CRIS scores”.

A counter index to nullify the unattractiveness of the credit ratings own indices – ratings that are meaningless to Bharat and its people. If we needed more evidence that our major ministries are populated by lotus-eaters – as is the Planning Commission and its opulent toilets – this is it.

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Slow and sober – what credit and debt means to the US, and to us

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Free tickets for the US debt train

Update: Here is the China view, from Xinhua:

China side-stepping U.S. financial crisis with innovative strategies – After watching Congress play politics and care not a whit about upholding the honor of United States, can the world assume that America is not about to become a deadbeat to beat all deadbeat nations in history?

Even if the United States Treasury eventually honors its obligations after undergoing the tortuous exercise between House, Senate and the White House, will the rest of the world continue to have faith and confidence in the value of the dollar? China, the country that holds more U.S. federal debt than any other foreign country, is taking action to sidestep potential future U.S. default. Full story

U.S. debt ceiling deal is double-edge sword for China – The roller-coaster debate over raising the US national debt ceiling finally concluded after the two parties made compromises. The Democratic Party-led administration removed the political restraint of debt default before the general election in 2012, and the Republican Party-led House of Representatives secured a promise to cut government spending over the next decade.

The two parties had threatened each other using the interests of global creditors, staging a preview of next year’s general election. Meanwhile, the hidden trouble in the global financial market and economic recovery has temporarily been avoided. Full story

Time to reconsider buying of US assets – While the Chinese government made it clear that it was unhappy about the possibility that the United States could default on its debt, it was also clear that China’s concerns are not a major factor in US politics. The United States has always been an incredibly insular country. The vast majority of the public has very little interest in or concern for what is going elsewhere in the world, except insofar as it directly affects the US. Full story

Earlier – Lots of outrage, vitriol and prognosis about the US credit rating downgrade. Does it affect anything in our real lives? What will it do to prices and household assets? What will it do to food inflation and the cost of living? At what point does credit rating become meaningless for an economy that’s deep in debt anyway (and exporting wars all over the planet)? Here are some signposts.

CEPR has savaged the New York Times for an article which asserted that members of the congressional panel will have to “mute ideological disagreements.” It is not clear that members of Congress have ideological disagreements. Members of Congress get elected because of their ability to appeal to powerful interest groups, said CEPR. “The differences around proposals to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare or to raise taxes on the wealthy most obviously stem from the different interest groups being represented. It is not obvious that the ideology of individual members of Congress matters, since their ability to keep their jobs will depend on the extent to which members of Congress can keep their backers satisfied.”

It also would have been useful to include the views of members of Congress who ridiculed the downgrade, pointing out that S&P had rated hundreds of billions of subprime mortgage backed securities as investment grade. It also had given top investment grade ratings to both Lehman and AIG until the day they collapsed. It also was off by $2 trillion in its calculations of U.S. indebtedness. In other words, there are very good reasons not to take S&P’s ratings seriously and there certainly many people who do not, including it seems investors in financial markets.

Take your money to new places indeed!

In Triple Crisis only a few days ago, C P Chandrashekar discussed the debt of Greece and what it means for Europe and its currency. “What is galling to most is the fact that at the end of all this, the problem remains unresolved. Greek public debt is still in excess of its gross domestic product. Servicing that even on slightly lighter terms seems near impossible in the midst of austerity that spells recession. Another bail-out is inevitable. The danger is that next time around governments across Europe and elsewhere may be overcome with bail-out fatigue and just risk wholesale default. The banks and private creditors would then get their due. But that is small comfort, since the fall-out for the rest may be too much to bear.”

In the Financial Times, Eswar Prasad and Mengjie Ding say that their analysis paints a sobering picture of worsening public debt dynamics and a sharply rising debt burden in advanced economies. These rising debt levels combined with heightened concerns about fiscal solvency now constitute a major threat to global financial stability.

It's all just a movie set, isn't it?

“Recent events in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and other economies on the periphery of the eurozone show the risks of debt buildups that are not tackled. Bond investors can quickly turn against a vulnerable country with high debt levels, leaving the country little breathing room to balance its fiscal books and precipitating a crisis. Overall, the worldwide picture of government debt is not pretty.”

Via Economists View, a veteran’s look at S&P’s competency to do anything at all:

Back when I was an in-house lawyer for an investment bank, I had extensive interactions with all three rating agencies. We needed to get a lot of deals rated, and I was almost always involved in that process in the deals I worked on. To say that S&P analysts aren’t the sharpest tools in the drawer is a massive understatement.

I’ve seen S&P make far more basic mistakes than the one they made in miscalculating the US’s debt-to-GDP ratio. I’ve seen an S&P managing director who didn’t know the order of operations, and when we pointed it out to him, stopped taking our calls. Despite impressive-sounding titles, these guys personify “amateur hour.” (And my opinion of S&P isn’t just based on a few deals; it’s based on countless deals, meetings, and phone calls over 20 years. It’s also the opinion of practically everyone else who deals with the rating agencies on a semi-regular basis.)

Written by makanaka

August 9, 2011 at 18:26