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Moody Blues

Moody’s, one of the three main international credit rating agencies, has just downgraded the UK’s credit rating from the top Aaa rating to Aa1. The other two agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch may follow suit as they have the UK’s triple A rating on ‘negative outlook’.

The reason for Moody’s decision can be see in its press statement:

The key interrelated drivers of today’s action are:
1. The continuing weakness in the UK’s medium-term growth outlook, with a period of sluggish growth which Moody’s now expects will extend into the second half of the decade;
2. The challenges that subdued medium-term growth prospects pose to the government’s fiscal consolidation programme, which will now extend well into the next parliament;
3. And, as a consequence of the UK’s high and rising debt burden, a deterioration in the shock-absorption capacity of the government’s balance sheet, which is unlikely to reverse before 2016.

The direct economic consequences of Moody’s action are likely to be minimal. People were excpecting a downgrade sooner or later for the reasons Moody’s quotes. Thus stock markets, bond markets and foreign exchange markets already reflect this. Indeed, in the first seven weeks of 2013, the sterling exchange rate index has depreciated by over 6%.

The political consequences, however, are likely to be significant. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Orborne, has put considerable emphasis on the importance of maintaining a triple A rating. He has seen it as a sign of the confidence of investors in the government’s policy of focusing on cutting the public-sector deficit and, ultimately, of cutting the public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP. His response, therefore, has been that the government will redouble its efforts to reduce the deficit.

Not surprisingly the Labour opposition claims the downgrading is evidence that the government’s austerity policies are not working. If the aim is to cut the deficit/GDP ratio, this is difficult if GDP is falling or just ‘flat lining’. A less aggressive austerity policy, it is argued, would allow growth to recover and this rise in the denominator would allow the deficit/GDP ratio to fall.

Latest forecasts are that government borrowing is set to rise. The average of 24 independent forecasts of the UK economy, published by the Treasury on 13/2/13, is that public-sector net borrowing will rise from £90.7bn in 2012/13 to £107bn in 2013/14. And the European Commission forecast of the UK economy is that the general government deficit will rise from 5.9% of GDP in 2012/13 to 7.0% of GDP in 2013/14.

So what will be the economic and political consequences of the loss of the triple A rating? What policy options are open to the government? The following articles explore these questions. Not surprisingly, they don’t all agree!

Downgrading Britain: The Friday night drop The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (23/2/13)
Rating downgrade: Q&A The Observer, Josephine Moulds (24/2/13)
Downgrade is Osborne’s punishment for deficit-first policy The Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/2/13)
Britain’s downgraded credit rating: Moody’s wake-up call must trigger a change of course The Observer (24/2/13)
Editorial: AAA loss is a sign of failure Independent (24/2/13)
It’s not the end of the world – but it’s the end of any false complacency Independent, Hamish McRae (24/2/13)
Moody’s downgrade will stiffen George Osborne’s resolve The Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (23/2/13)
UK AAA downgrade: Budget is now George Osborne’s make or break moment The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (23/2/13)
Britain’s credit downgrade is a call to live within our means The Telegraph, Liam Halligan (23/2/13)
Britain will take years to earn back AAA rating, says Ken Clarke The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (24/2/13)

Questions

  1. How important are credit agencies’ sovereign credit ratings to a country (a) economically; (b) politically? Why may the political effects have subsequent economic effects?
  2. Explain the meaning of the terms ‘exogenous’ and ‘endogenous’ variables. In terms of the determination of economic growth, are government expenditure and tax revenue exogenous or endogenous variables? What are the implications for a policy of cutting the government deficit?
  3. Identify the reasons for the predicted rise in the public-sector deficit as a proportion of GDP. Which of these, if any, are ‘of the government’s own making’?
  4. In the absence of a change in its fiscal stance, what policies could the government adopt to increase business confidence?
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