Yesterday, as reported in Money News, Moody’s made me laugh, with the following pronouncements:
” . . . it could move a step closer to cutting the U.S. Aaa rating if President Barack Obama’s tax and unemployment benefit package becomes law. . . .
“The plan agreed to by Obama and Republican leaders last week could push up debt levels, increasing the likelihood of a negative outlook on the United States rating in the coming two years . . .
“A negative outlook, if adopted, would make a rating cut more likely over the following 12-to-18 months.
“For the United States, a loss of the top Aaa rating, reduce the appeal of U.S. Treasurys, which currently rank as among the world’s safest investments.
“From a credit perspective, the negative effects on government finance are likely to outweigh the positive effects of higher economic growth,” Moody’s analyst Steven Hess said in a report sent late on Sunday.”
Here Moody’s is referring to the increase in the debt, and the debt-to-GDP ratio caused by the tax deal, and also to the predicted lesser value of Treasuries which will presumably lead to the US paying higher interest rates and having greater interest costs on the national debt than it otherwise would have had. In addition, Moody’s believes that the likely $900 billion cost of the tax deal will make the US more likely to default on the national debt.
I found this a laughing matter for a number of reasons. First, as Jane Hamsher points, out only 5 days earlier Moody’s had said there was no prospect of a ratings cut if the tax deal passed. Their sudden change of opinion greatly undercuts their credibility.
Second, as is widely known, all the ratings agencies including Moody’s gave the CDOs and CDSs that led to the collapse of AIG their highest ratings. In addition they downgraded Japan’s credit ratings a long time ago, with no measurable impact on its bond interest rates or costs, even though Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio has continued to increase over time and is now in the neighborhood of 200%. So, one may be forgiven for wondering why anyone should listen to the ratings ravings of Moody’s and the other agencies at all. In fact, one may begin to suspect that their ratings have little influence on the bond markets, and also, given the Japanese case, that the bond markets don’t control the interest rates that Governments sovereign in their own currency must pay.
Third, since the United States is a nation with a fiat non-convertible currency system, with a floating exchange rate, and no debt denominated in any foreign currency, it is impossible for the United States to be forced into a default by any external party, simply because its ability to create the money it owes its obligations in is unlimited. Voluntary default could be caused by a Congress which acts stupidly, and in a manner contrary to the Constitution, to constrain the Treasury from paying its obligations when they come due, coupled with a Treasury that accepts Congress’s constraint in conflict with the clear admonition of the Constitution that the debts of the United State shall not be questioned.
The objective risk of default by the US Government is not increased by the increased size of the deficit, debt, or debt-to-GDP ratio. And Moody’s view that the risk of default is increased by such increases, only shows that Moody’s doesn’t understand the monetary operations of nations sovereign in their own currencies. Increases in these numbers don’t in any way lessen the constitutional authority of the Government (including the Congress) to spend or make money. It’s basic solvency, in other words is untouched by the tax deal, and if Congress allows the Executive to use its currency powers, then the risk of default as a result of the deal is exactly zero. Whatever additional risk exists as a result of the deal, comes only from the increased likelihood that Congress, mistakenly thinking that the Government is like a household, or, or ideological reasons, determined to “starve the beast” might constrain the Executive from meeting its obligations, and declare a US default of its obligations when there is no reason to do so.
Fourth, my biggest laugh came at the underlying assumption of Moody’s report, namely that its ratings and the bond market itself actually control the interest rates that Governments like the United States must pay. Sure, they will determine interest rates if the Government sits idly by and lets them drive the market. However, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, can target bond interest rates and set these for the bond markets by manipulating bank reserves. Specifically, one way to do this, is that the Treasury can cease issuing long-term bonds, and sell only three-month bonds. Three-month bond interest rates are generally controlled by overnight rates for bank reserves, and overnight rates can be driven down to near zero by flooding the banks with excess reserves. That’s basically how the Japanese keep their bond interest near zero, and that’s how we can do the same.
Alternatively, another move we can make to remove the effects of the bond markets and the ratings agencies upon public finances, is for Congress to stop requiring new debt issuance in coordination with deficit spending, and for the Treasury to stop issuing debt. If we did this the credit rating agencies and the interest rates in the bond market would be irrelevant from that day forward.
In short, the bond markets and the ratings agencies aren’t in control of US public finances. They are not in a position to influence what our taxing or spending policies ought to be, or whether we will default on our obligations. In fact, at this point in our history, Congress is mandating that we have a national debt. It is forcing us to have one.
Congress mandates that we borrow our own previously created money from the Chinese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern nations and pay them interest on a commodity (our money), that we have an unlimited ability to create, while they also complain about the very same national debt they are always re-creating and increasing, and then tell us that we can’t afford unemployment insurance, enough Federal Spending to create full employment, Social Security, Medicare for All, good educations for our kids and grandkids, and emergency programs to create new energy foundations for our economy.
Forget about Moody’s! They’re part of the great distraction preventing us from focusing on our real problems. There’s nothing that Moody’s and the bond markets can do to hurt us, unless we let them. Let’s not let them. Tell them to bring it on! And, if they do, tell them to keep in mind Beowulf’s admonition:
”I don’t think we’ll see Moody’s or any other rating service based in the US ever downgrade US Treasuries. It would cause a tremendous amount of financial loss and would leave Moody’s and its executives exposed to criminal prosecution. If I were Moody’s general counsel, I’d tell the CEO in no uncertain terms, Do Not Tug On Superman’s Cape.
14th Amendment, Sect. 5
”. . . .the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law… shall not be questioned”
Criminal Mischief statute
18 US 1361. Government property or contracts
“Whoever willfully injures or commits any depredation against any property of the United States, or of any department or agency thereof, or any property which has been or is being manufactured or constructed for the United States, or any department or agency thereof, or attempts to commit any of the foregoing offenses, shall be punished as follows:
If the damage or attempted damage to such property exceeds the sum of $1,000, by a fine under this title or imprisonment for not more than ten years, or both; if the damage or attempted damage to such property does not exceed the sum of $1,000, by a fine under this title or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or both.”
And Bill Michell’s Conclusion in his post on outlawing the credit rating agencies:
“The real question that I always ask is why governments allow these undemocratic criminal organisations to exist. They can just outlaw them. This would force the corporate players to create better ways of informing the markets about their risk characteristics and leave governments alone to do what they are democratically elected to do – advance public purpose.
Further. as part of my preferred financial market reforms I would render illegal a whole swag of derivative assets which would lessen the problem of pricing risk.
It is time to wean the private financial markets off these agencies. The best way would be to declare them illegal.
The last thing that a sovereign government should be doing right now is cutting back on its fiscal stimulus.”
Which, of course, is exactly what Moody’s wants us to do.