April 26, 2011
Last week the financial markets were roiled by Standard & Poor’s announcement that they will change their outlook on the fiscal health of the United States over the next two years from “stable” to “negative”. The administration decried this decision as political. However, it seems the only political thing about this decision is the fact that it took so long. The Washington Post recently reported that the White House and the Treasury Department put tremendous pressure on S&P not to do this. However, if S&P made its ratings based on political pressures rather than economic reality, it would cease to have any relevance to the business community. Even if S&P delayed its announcement that U.S. government bond market would be downgraded, at some point it would become obvious that the finances of this country are out of control and our leadership is out of touch. All credibility would be lost if S&P simply continued to assign U.S. debt a AAA rating. S&P noted in its announcement that negotiations among leaders in Washington to address deficit concerns did not sound promising, and expressed skepticism that politicians could agree to any viable budget compromise. Of course this has been obvious for years but in the midst of the current debate over raising the debt limit it is perhaps the wake-up call that Washington needs. For decades politicians and government officials have been able to maintain their denial about our real financial situation, patching the system together by passing emergency and supplemental funding bills, issuing more debt, and allowing the Federal Reserve and foreign creditors to paper over deficits with more monetary expansion. I’ve said many times the real day of reckoning comes when fiscal and monetary tricks no longer work and there are no buyers for our debt.