Fitch Goes Wobbly About U.S.’s Credit Rating

After starting strong in a new ratings review of U.S. credit, ratings agency Fitch gets all wobbly by the end. Here is the full press release tonight:

Fitch Ratings has today affirmed the United States’ (US) Long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) at ‘AAA’, respectively. The rating Outlook on the Long-term ratings is Stable. Fitch has simultaneously affirmed the US’ Country Ceiling at ‘AAA’ and the Short-term foreign currency rating at ‘F1+’.

"The near-term risk to the United States’ ‘AAA’ status is minimal given its exceptional financing and economic flexibility and the US dollar’s role as the world’s predominant reserve currency. However, difficult decisions will have to be made regarding spending and tax to underpin market confidence in the long-run sustainability of public finances and the commitment to low inflation," said Brian Coulton, Head of Global Economics and the Primary Analyst for the US at Fitch.

"In the absence of measures to reduce the budget deficit over the next three-to-five years, government indebtedness will approach levels by the latter half of the decade that will bring pressure to bear on the US’ ‘AAA’ status," added Coulton.

The US government remains exceptionally creditworthy – supported by its pivotal role in the global financial system and a flexible, diversified and wealthy economy that provides its revenue base – despite an unprecedented deterioration in fiscal performance. The government’s unparalleled financing flexibility enhances debt tolerance even relative to other large ‘AAA’-rated sovereigns, and has allowed the government to take aggressive counter-crisis and counter-cyclical policy measures, which now appear to be working in terms of restoring stability to the US financial sector and the economy.

However, the government faces significant medium term fiscal challenges with a sizeable structural deficit, a narrow tax base, limited expenditure flexibility and exposure to potential interest rate shocks due to the short duration and maturity of US government debt and a heavy reliance on foreign investors. Public debt on a general government (i.e. consolidated federal, state and local) basis is expected to rise to 89% of GDP in 2010 and 94% in 2011 from 79% of GDP in 2009, which would mark the highest level among ‘AAA’-rated sovereigns. Public debt was just 57% at end 2007.

The general government deficit – estimated by Fitch at 11.4% of GDP in 2009 and forecast at 11% in 2010 and 8.5% in 2011 – contains, in Fitch’s opinion, a sizeable structural component that will not be eliminated by the economic recovery and the unwinding of stimulus measures. Corporate taxes, in particular, collapsed in 2009 having been boosted by artificially strong financial sector profits and asset price gains in the years before the recession began and are unlikely to show a strong recovery. Fitch anticipates the economic recovery will be weak by the standards of previous recoveries and less dynamic than assumed in the latest official medium term fiscal forecasts. Deleveraging will continue to weigh on private sector demand, while rising long-term unemployment and the fall in investment through the recession could adversely affect supply side performance. In addition, while TARP related fiscal outlays have been lower than anticipated, fiscal risks relating to the financial sector remain, particularly with regard to Fannie Mae (‘AAA’/'F1+’/Outlook Stable) and Freddie Mac (‘AAA’/'F1+’/Outlook Stable).

Public debt levels compare particularly poorly with ‘AAA’-rated peers when expressed relative to fiscal revenue. General government debt was equivalent to 330% of revenues at end 2009 (even higher at 437% on a narrower central government basis), the highest among ‘AAA’-rated sovereigns and compared to a long-run ‘AAA’ average of 118%. Amongst high grade sovereigns, only Japan (‘AA’/'F1+’/Outlook Stable) and Ireland (‘AA-’/'F1+’/Outlook Stable) have higher debt-to-revenue ratios. Debt interest payments are expected to rise to nearly 11% of revenue by 2011 and nearly 13% on a central government basis. Fiscal flexibility is also reduced by the limited scope for sizeable structural reductions in public expenditure, given low discretionary outlays and pressures on entitlement spending.

Both the dollar’s role as the predominant global reserve currency and the benchmark status of US Treasuries significantly reduce the scope for destabilising interest rate shocks. But the economy’s high external debt burden, the ongoing current account deficit and the high share of non-resident holdings of government debt (close to 50%) increase the potential for volatility in US asset prices if foreign investors were to become concerned about public debt sustainability or risks to the credibility of the monetary policy framework. With the average maturity of federal debt having shortened sharply over 2008 and 2009, rising interest rates would feed through to the budget relatively quickly.

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