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Moody's: Updates on Rating Implications of U.S. Debt Limit

Authors: Steven A. Hess, and Bart Oosterveld
June 2, 2011

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In an announcement from Moody's Investors Service, sovereign risk officers Steven A. Hess and Bart Oosterveld caution that failure to raise the U.S. statutory debt limit could lead to a downgrade of the U.S. government's credit rating.

Moody's Investors Service said today that if there is no progress on increasing the statutory debt limit in coming weeks, it expects to place the US government's rating under review for possible downgrade, due to the very small but rising risk of a short-lived default. If the debt limit is raised and default avoided, the Aaa rating will be maintained. However, the rating outlook will depend on the outcome of negotiations on deficit reduction. A credible agreement on substantial deficit reduction would support a continued stable outlook; lack of such an agreement could prompt Moody's to change its outlook to negative on the Aaa rating.

Although Moody's fully expected political wrangling prior to an increase in the statutory debt limit, the degree of entrenchment into conflicting positions has exceeded expectations. The heightened polarization over the debt limit has increased the odds of a short-lived default. If this situation remains unchanged in coming weeks, Moody's will place the rating under review.

Moody's had previously indicated that its stable outlook on the Aaa rating was based on the assumption that meaningful progress would be made within the next eighteen months in adopting measures to reverse the country's upward debt trajectory. The debt limit negotiations represent a real near-term opportunity for agreement on a plan for fiscal consolidation. If this current opportunity passes, Moody's believes that the likelihood of anything significant being accomplished before the next presidential election is reduced, in part because the two parties each hopes to capture both a congressional majority and the presidency in the 2012 election, after which the winning party could achieve its own agenda. Therefore, failure to reach an agreement as part of the current negotiations would increase the likelihood of a negative outlook in the near term, because the upward debt trajectory would still be in place. At present, this appears the most likely outcome, in Moody's opinion.

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