Germany and France to Lose AAA Rating

Reuters
August 9, 2011

PARIS/LONDON – France and Britain are most vulnerable within Europe to a rating review following the U.S. downgrade, with anemic growth and hefty borrowing placing them among the shakiest of the world’s triple-A rated lenders.

Both countries have stable rating outlooks, making a sudden downgrade unlikely and markets have been so impressed by Britain’s debt-cutting strategy that they have pushed its bond yields to record lows.

But a surge in the cost of insuring French debt against default on Monday highlighted alarm sparked by Friday’s U.S. rating cut as banks and brokerages warned that rating agencies could now have top-rated European lenders in their sights.

“France has slipped into borderline AA+/Aa1/AA+ (one notch below AAA) territory, so risks to its AAA are rising as stresses spread,” financial services firm BBH said in a note to clients.

In another indication of mounting concern over France, spreads between French and German 10-year bond yields hit all-time highs last week and remained wide on Monday.

The most likely trigger for France to be put on negative watch would be a failure by the government to get parliamentary backing for a constitutional limit on future public deficits, with opposition left-wing lawmakers vowing to reject it.

Euro zone outsider Britain looks less vulnerable, having its own currency which could slide in value and its own interest rate, but it could also come under review given its weaker economic fundamentals.

“There are … lots of countries in Europe that should be downgraded just as the U.S. has been downgraded,” U.S. investor Jim Rogers, co-founder of the Quantum Fund, told Reuters Insider as world leaders battled to calm a market rout driven by concern about U.S. and European debt levels.

After making history by stripping America of its AAA-rating, Standard and Poor’s reaffirmed France’s top-notch status and stable outlook at the weekend. Moody’s and Fitch declined to comment, but neither has given any indication they could change their outlooks on the United States, France or Britain.

Providing further comfort, fund managers poured into French and British bonds in early trading as Friday’s U.S. downgrade forced them to shift funds out of U.S. treasuries.

However, French five-year credit default swaps (CDS) surged 15.5 basis points on the day to a record-high 160 bps, according to data monitor Markit, taking it closer to the level of AA-rated states such as Belgium, though analysts warned the market often overreacts.

“The CDS market is very dysfunctional,” said Mark Schofield, global head of interest rate strategy at Citi.

“Although France from the perspective of fiscal fundamentals looks the weakest of the triple-A issuers in Europe, I still think that given very low levels of yields, the depth of the domestic market, the ability to continue to fund at low levels, it’s unlikely France will be downgraded in the near future.”

As for Britain, he added: “It’s unlikely that the UK will be downgraded. At this point in time, we’ve seen very significant fiscal tightening put in place.”

FRENCH POLITICS IN FOCUS

In the euro zone, only Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have a triple-A rating, and French debt costs the most to insure.

France also has the highest deficit, debt and primary deficit of any of them and it is the only triple-A euro zone country running a current account deficit.

Its debt to GDP ratio — set to hit 86.9 percent next year and described by the national audit office as nearing the danger zone — could be pushed even higher by France’s contribution to a new Greece bailout.

S&P said in June it would probably downgrade France in the long term without further reforms and that to preserve its AAA rating France must balance its budget in the next five years, something not achieved since 1974.

It could re-examine its rating outlook as soon as the autumn if President Nicolas Sarkozy fails to win backing for his constitutional budget-balancing rule. Winning would require a three-fifths majority in a two-chamber parliamentary vote and the opposition Socialist Party has vowed to vote against.

“It would be a call for action,” for ratings agencies, said Deutsche Bank analyst Gilles Moec.

He said France was “intrinsically in a better situation” than the United States and could stave off a downgrade by accelerating deficit cuts, one idea being to raise value-added taxes and trim social contributions on labor.

Also weighing on France is a possible swing to a left-wing government after a presidential election next April. The Socialists have vowed to tinker, if they win, with a 2010 retirement reform aimed at cutting future pension costs.

WEAK GROWTH UK’S MAIN RISK

Britain has an even bigger deficit, primary deficit and debt to GDP ratio than France, and also runs a current account deficit but weak growth — and the damaging effect that would have on its debt pile — is its main threat.

Moody’s warned in June that it could reconsider its stance on Britain in the event of lower growth combined with weak fiscal consolidation.

Citi’s Schofield agreed, saying: “The big risks would be a very sharp slowdown in growth and/or huge political upheavals, if you started to get a breakdown in the coalition.”

Broadly, however, markets have faith in Britain’s ability to pay back its debt, despite a budget deficit of some 10 percent, because of an austerity plan that includes tax increases and unprecedented cuts in public spending.

Yields on 10-year gilts hit a record low of 2.59 percent last week and British debt continued to outperform European debt on Monday as investors looked for safe havens.

Yet, the economy has basically stalled over the last nine months and even the government’s fiscal watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, has acknowledged its growth forecast of 1.7 percent for 2011 looks too high.

Lower growth means lower tax receipts and maybe a higher welfare bill if unemployment rises, all of which will add to debt.

The opposition has called for emergency tax cuts and some observers were quick to blame riots in London over the weekend on public spending cuts and dire economic prospects.

“Notwithstanding the fact that the UK is still struggling with its own economic recovery, we are pretty confident that the coalition is going to hold in the UK,” David Beers, head of Standard & Poor’s sovereign ratings, told Reuters Insider.

Washington Wakes To The Downgrade — And Does Nothing

Business Insider
August 8, 2011

Tens of thousands of congressional staffers, government employees and K-street lobbyists begin their first work-day after Standard and Poor’s downgraded the United States Friday, but elected officials — including the one occupying the White House— are nowhere to be found.

Politicians of both parties are escaping the DC heat and humidity for the month-long August recess, while President Barack Obama is scaling back his public event schedule as his campaign continues fundraising activities.

The S&P action has done little to change the political reality in the near term — that Congress is taking a vacation while leaving half-a-dozen jobs bills and the federal budget incomplete. And for the next month, there will be no response from Washington other than the blame game.

Neither party is quite sure how the public is reacting to news of the downgrade, with Republicans criticizing Democrats, and Democrats criticizing S&P.

For Obama the downgrade is a massive liability, as he is the most visible member of a government now deemed to be at some risk of not meeting its obligations. Republicans are on the hook for their opposition to tax reforms, cited by S&P as a key factor in the decision to strip the U.S. of its ‘AAA’ rating.

Looking ahead, the downgrade puts new pressures on the “Super Committee,” created less than a week ago to cut $1.5 trillion from the deficit, to exceed its goal by as much as $2 trillion to meet the S&P’s target.

Hopes for the bipartisan group dimmed last week, as Republicans and Democrats waged a public battle over the need for revenue-raising reforms and whether to include entitlement spending as part of the discussions.

S&P said it doubts that a serious attempt at either will succeed. Ratings officials even threatened a second downgrade if the committee failed to meet its statutory requirements, despite the triggered cuts that would take effect.

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US borrowing tops 100% of GDP

AFP
August 4, 2011

US debt shot up $238 billion to reach 100 percent of gross domestic project after the government’s debt ceiling was lifted, Treasury figures showed Wednesday.

Treasury borrowing jumped Tuesday, the data showed, immediately after President Barack Obama signed into law an increase in the debt ceiling as the country’s spending commitments reached a breaking point and it threatened to default on its debt.

The new borrowing took total public debt to $14.58 trillion, over end-2010 GDP of $14.53 trillion, and putting it in a league with highly indebted countries like Italy and Belgium.

Public debt subject to the official debt limit — a slightly tighter definition — was $14.53 trillion as of the end of Tuesday, rising from the previous official cap of $14.29 trillion a day earlier.

Treasury had used extraordinary measures to hold under the $14.29 trillion cap since reaching it on May 16, while politicians battled over it and over addressing the country’s bloating deficit.

The official limit was hiked $400 billion on Tuesday and will be increased in stages over the next 18 months.

The last time US debt topped the size of its annual economy was in 1947 just after World War II. By 1981 it had fallen to 32.5 percent.

Ratings agencies have warned the country to reduce its debt-to-GDP ratio quickly or facing losing its coveted AAA debt rating.

Moody’s said Tuesday that the government needed to stabilize the ratio at 73 percent by 2015 “to ensure that the long-run fiscal trajectory remains compatible with a AAA rating.”

First Traitor who wants out: Tim Geithner considers leaving U.S. Treasury

Bloomberg
June 30, 2011

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has signaled to White House officials that he’s considering leaving the administration after President Barack Obama reaches an agreement with Congress to raise the federal debt limit, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Geithner said speculation about his departure was being driven by his decision to commute to New York so his son can finish his final year of high school there.

“I live for this work,” he said at the Clinton Global Initiative in Chicago. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done. I believe in it. We have a lot of challenges as a country. I’m going to be doing it for the foreseeable future.”

Geithner hasn’t made a final decision and won’t do so until the debt-ceiling issue has been resolved, according to one of the people. All spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about private discussions.

The Treasury secretary has said the U.S. risks defaulting on its obligations if Congress doesn’t raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by Aug. 2. The administration and Republicans in Congress are at an impasse in negotiations to raise the limit, which is tied to efforts to cut the nation’s long-term deficit.

Moody’s Investors Service said on June 2 that it expects to place the U.S. government’s Aaa credit rating under review for a possible downgrade if there’s no progress on the debt limit by mid-July. Fitch Ratings said June 21 it would place the U.S. on a negative rating watch if no action is taken by Aug. 2.

Completing the Turnover

An exit by Geithner would complete the turnover in Obama’s original economic team, with Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee scheduled to leave in early August to return to the University of Chicago.

That would leave Obama with two key posts to fill as Republicans are seeking to turn the 2012 election into a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy and as the recovery is slowing. The unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent in May, according to the Labor Department, and the economy grew at a 1.9 percent pace in the first quarter, according to Commerce Department figures released June 24.

Jen Psaki, a White House spokeswoman, declined to comment.

“Geithner leaving may raise the level of uncertainty for the direction of economic policy, and that is never a positive thing for the markets and the recovery,” said Christopher Sullivan, who oversees $1.7 billion as chief investment officer at the United Nations Federal Credit Union in New York.

‘Shock Value’

Still, he said, it wouldn’t have too much “shock value,” especially if Geithner remains at Treasury until the debt ceiling is settled, “which is the most pressing concern anyone would have.”

Treasuries fell for a fourth day as stocks rose and a measure of U.S. business activity improved. The yield on the 10- year note climbed five basis points, or 0.05 percentage point, to 3.16 percent at 5:14 p.m. in New York.

Investors may be more interested in who would come after Geithner.

“The question in cases like this is always who will be the replacement,” said Jay Mueller, who manages about $3 billion of bonds at Wells Fargo Capital Management in Milwaukee. “You can’t judge if this is good or bad for the market until you see who follows.”

The market was “comfortable” with Geithner because he was “a visible player in trying to blunt the crisis,” Mueller said.

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