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)
- How important are credit agencies’ sovereign credit ratings to a country (a) economically; (b) politically? Why may the political effects have subsequent economic effects?
- 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?
- 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’?
- In the absence of a change in its fiscal stance, what policies could the government adopt to increase business confidence?
A negative outlook for the UK economy – at least that’s what Moody’s believes. The credit rating agency has put the UK economy’s sovereign credit rating, together with 2 other European nations (France and Austria) on the ‘negative outlook’ list.
The UK currently has a triple A rating and we have been able to maintain this despite the credit crunch and subsequent recession. However, with weak economic data and the continuing crisis in the eurozone, Moody’s took the decision to give the UK a ‘negative outlook’, which means the UK, as well as France and Austria have about a 30% chance of losing their triple A rating in the next 18 months.
Both Labour and the Coalition government have claimed this decision supports their view of the economy. Labour says this decision shows that the economy needs a stimulus and the Coalition should change its stance on cutting the budget deficit. However, the Coalition says that it shows the importance the Credit ratings agencies attach to budget deficits. Indeed, Moody’s statement showed no signs that it feels the UK should ease up on its austerity measures. The statement suggested the reverse – that a downgrade would only occur if the outlook worsened or if the government eased up on its cuts. The Coalition’s focus on cutting the deficit could even be something that has prevented the UK being put on the ‘negative watch’ list, as opposed to the ‘negative outlook’ list. The former is definitely worse than the latter, as it implies a 50% chance of a downgrade, rather than the current 30%.
The triple A rating doesn’t guarantee market confidence, but it does help keep the cost of borrowing for the government low. Indeed, the UK government’s cost of borrowing is at an historic low. A key problem therefore for the government is that there is a certain trade-off that it faces. Moody’s says that 2 things would make the UK lose its rating – a worsening economic outlook or if the government eases on its austerity plans. However, many would argue that it is the austerity plans that are creating the bad economic outlook. If the cuts stop, the economy may respond positively, but the deficit would worsen, potentially leading to a downgrade. On the other hand, if the austerity plans continue and the economy fails to improve, a downgrade could also occur. The next few days will be crucial in determining how the markets react to this news. The following articles consider this issue.
The meaning of ‘negative’ for Mr Osborne and the UK BBC News, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (14/2/12)
Relaxed markets remain one step ahead of Moody’s move The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (14/2/12)
George Osborne tries to be positive on negative outlook for economy Guardian, Patrick Wintour (14/2/12)
Moody’s wants it may cut AAA-rating for UK and France Reuters, Rodrigo Campos and Walter Brandimarte (14/2/12)
Moody’s rating decision backs the Coalition’s path of fiscal consolidation The Telegraph, Damian Reece (14/2/12)
Moody’s rating agency places UK on negative outlook BBC News (14/2/12)
Britain defends austerity measures New York Times, Julia Werdigier 14/2/12)
- What does a triple A rating mean for the UK economy?
- Which factors will be considered when a ratings agency decides to change a country’s credit rating? What similarities exist between the UK, France and Austria?
- Which political view point do you think Moody’s decision backs? Do you agree with the Telegraph article that ‘Moody’s rating decision backs the Coalition’s path of fiscal consolidation’?
- If a country does see its credit rating downgraded, what might this mean for government borrowing costs? Explain why this might cause further problems for a country?
- How do you think markets will react to this news? Explain your answer.
- What action should the government take: continue to cut the deficit or focus on the economic outlook?
- Why has the eurozone crisis affected the UK’s credit rating?
With the UK economy already struggling, the atmosphere in the financial sector has just a bit moodier, as Moody’s have downgraded the credit rating of 12 financial firms in the UK, including Lloyds Banking Group, Royal Bank of Scotland and Nationwide. The change in credit rating has emerged because of Moody’s belief that the UK government was less likely to support these firms if they fell into financial trouble. It was, however, emphasized that it did not “reflect a deterioration in the financial strength of the banking system.” The same can not be said for Portugal, who has similarly seen nine of their banks being downgraded due to ‘financial weakness’. George Osborne commented that it was down to the government no longer guaranteeing our largest banks, but he also said:
“I’m confident that British banks are well capitalised, they are liquid, they are not experiencing the kinds of problems that some of the banks in the eurozone are experiencing at the moment.”
Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland both saw falls in their shares following their downgraded credit rating. Other banks, including Barclays also saw their shares fall, despite not being downgraded. Perhaps another indication of the interdependence we now see across the world. In interviews, George Osborne has continued to say that he believes UK banks are secure and wants them to become more independent to try to protect taxpayer’s money in the event of a crisis. Moody’s explained its decision saying:
“Moody’s believes that the government is likely to continue to provide some level of support to systemically important financial institutions, which continue to incorporate up to three notches of uplift…However, it is more likely now to allow smaller institutions to fail if they become financially troubled. The downgrades do not reflect a deterioration in the financial strength of the banking system or that of the government.”
The above comment reflects Moody’s approach to downgrading UK banks – not all have seen the same credit rating cuts. RBS and Nationwide have gone down 2 notches, whilst Lloyds and Santander have only gone down by 1 notch. Markets across the world will continue to react to this development in the UK financial sector, so it is a story worth keeping up to date with. The following articles consider the Moody environment.
UK banks’ credit rating downgraded The Press Association (7/10/11)
UK financial firms downgraded by Moody’s rating agency BBC News (7/10/11)
Moody’s downgrades nine Portuguese banks Financial Times, Peter Wise (7/10/11)
Bank shares fall on Moody’s downgrade Telegraph, Harry Wilson (7/10/11)
Moody’s cuts credit rating on UK banks RBS and Lloyds Reuters, Sudip Kar-Gupta (7/10/11)
Moody’s downgrade: George Osborne says British banks are sound Guardian, Andrew Sparrow (7/10/11)
Whitehall fears new bail-out for RBS Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins (7/10/11)
- Do you think that Moody’s have over-reacted? Explain your answer.
- What factors would Moody’s have considered when determining whether to downgrade the credit rating of any given bank and by how much?
- Why did share prices of the affected firms fall following the downgrading? What does this suggest about the public’s confidence in the banks?
- Do you think it is the right move for the government to encourage UK banks to become more independent in a bid to protect taxpayer’s money should a crisis develop?
- How might this downgrading affect the performance of the UK economy for the rest of 2011? Explain your answer.
- What are the differences behind the downgrading of UK banks and Portuguese banks?