Monday, August 8, 2011

We Have Been Sent To The Minors

I work in the private practice of law dealing daily with the economic realities of average people who have average problems and with those who have extraordinary financial problems. Having had the responsibility for the investment of as much as $145M, I continue to pay attention to the financial markets on a daily basis. This posting is to try to explain what has happened in the lowering of the credit rating of the Country's "sovereign" debt (meaning money the Country itself has borrowed - think Treasury Bonds) from AAA to AA+. Just like in baseball, we have been sent down to the minors.

By now, the entire world, knows that the United States has lost some of its credit-worthiness. Standard and Poors, known better by "S&P", in its role as a debt rating agency (a company that determines what debt is safe for investment and what is risky and how risky). The fact that the other two major raters have not taken any action "against" the U.S.'s risk seems to be of no importance.

In the world of investments PERCEPTION IS REALITY. That's true in many areas of life but especially in this one

The downgrade was apparently caused not by economic factors but rather the dithering of the Congress in deciding to do anything about the debt-ceiling and deficit reduction. With the complete polarization of the 2 ½ parties currently "in charge", little was done to address the systemic problem of our growing debt and its root causes.

It's easy to state that the Obama administration did or didn't do this or that, or that Bush allowed deregulation to go too far (think SEC and securitization). But, in reality should that have affected the credit worthiness "rating" of the sovereign debt of the U.S.? Probably NOT.

The Congress, through a myriad of laws and regulations wanted/tried to rein-in the Rating Agencies and hold them accountable for the financial meltdown. Remember it was these same agencies that rated Mortgage Backed Securities as AAA paper. That they were/are paid by the "investment banks" who did the securities to sell bonds to make $$billions has escaped the review of the markets now in panic over our AA+ rating. Rather than this being an assault on the problem with our deficits and trade imbalance, it seems more like S&P trying to exert enough pressure to get Congress here, and Parliaments in the EU to back off assigning liability to Credit Rating Agencies.

S&P was the only agency to downgrade. S&P was the agency most involved in giving the "seal of approval" to the MBS and CMBS bonds. S&P stands to be the biggest target if liability is established for the incorrect/negligent/disregard for underwriting standards rating of those bonds. It's worth repeating that the securities firms securitizing the loans and selling them for huge profits paid the rating agencies large fees to rate the bonds.

Michael Shemi wrote an excellent column in the August 4, 2011 edition of American Banker's blog "BANK THINK" ( ) where he discusses the moves to lessen the restraints and assignment of liability to and on the credit rating agencies. As he put it "Lastly, the continuing crises surrounding sovereign debts and national deficits from Greece to Portugal to the United States are affording rating agencies another opportunity to boost their own importance. By threatening the imminent downgrade of the ratings for these countries, the rating agencies keep their names in the news and constantly rattle the chains of issuers, regulators, and investors."

Of note is the matter of the probable divestiture of S&P by McGraw-Hill which owns it - "spin-off" because of S&P's enormous profitability. It needs publicity. It needs a crisis to show its importance and absolute need.

The U.S. economy has problems but also the capacity to overcome those issues if Congress can stop the "Texas steel cage death fight" over ideology". It's almost as if each political party and each faction thereof wants credit for causing the next recession. The rating agencies need to be held accountable - but so does Congress; and so do WE the people. We desparately need a coherent plan to reduce the deficit over the next decade by $4trillion and then another $10trillion in the decade following. Budget cuts? Social Security cuts? NO!! Tax reform - so rich folks pay a share commensurate with their annual income. Raise the age for Social Security benefits starting in "X" years - maybe from 62 (early)and 65/6 (regular-full) to 63 and 67/8 respectively.

If the WORLD saw us with a plan to eliminate the deficit totally in 20 years with a big push in the first 10, all would be well again.

Author's Copyright by Richard Isacoff, Esq, August 2011

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