USA could lose its AAA this decade

Obama OMB Director Orszag: oversees US budget.  Source:  Google Images
Obama OMB Director Peter Orszag. Source: Google Images

Planet Earth’s critical issue this decade will be whether American power will erode — and if so, what the implications will be for the liberal world order we erected after WWII.  The Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus package cum bank bailout, building on the Paulson-Bush-Geithner-Bernanke efforts of 2008 and the unprecedented coordination of economic policy globally, constituted a brilliant, stage-managed rescue of our planet, nothing less.  However, such a Herculean effort has created its own problems — huge debts, gaping goverment deficits, and a government intrusion in the economy that will be hard to reverse.  As yet, no plans to solve these problems have been offered.

Students of power and prosperity from Paul Kennedy on down know that imperial overextension accelerates the decline of great powers.  From this dynamic, the US is not immune.  While the relative decline of the US has been in place since the 1950s, its rapidity and consequences are far from inevitable.  A too precipitous, disorderly, angry decline that would occur if America does not right its fiscal ship soon would not only injure American prosperity, but would also put at risk our global institutions — the UN, the IMF and World Bank, NATO, the WTO, the G-20, etc.  These institutions have fostered cooperation and peaceful solutions to the world’s problems. 

The symbolic end to this Pax Americana, which has raised billions out of poverty and offered countless millions broader political participation, could be the loss of the AAA rating on US government bonds.  According to Brian Coulton, head of Global Economics at Fitch Ratings, this could occur later this decade if an aggressive fiscal consolidation program is not implemented by the Obama administration (see note below).  A narrow tax base, low discretionary spending (the kind of spending that is easiest to cut) and huge entitlements — including the $900 billion health “reform” up on Capitol Hill, the continued current account deficits in spite of sluggish GDP growth, and our dependence on foreigners for financing together spell a potentially rapid decline of America’s place in the world. 

So, who will fix this?  President Obama has chosen the nerd pictured above.  He is reportedly a bright, driven man.  I am not sure how hard it is to preside over the most massive expansion of entitlement spending in history and to oversee the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars of stimulus spending to groveling constituencies.  But that was just his first year.  The president’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was reported in the New York Times to have said that Office of Management and Budget Director Orszag has “made nerdy sexy,” perhaps with some jealousy.  The Times article this Sunday highlighted Orszag’s loose love life and questions about his commitment to his families.  I am all for keeping a public servant’s private life out of politics in principle, but one wonders how so extravagant a player can be entrusted with the most difficult fiscal consolidation in human history.  I don’t think rating agencies take into account the social life of a sovereign’s budget director in making their rating decisions, but one wonders sometimes if they should.    This seems to be part of the hubris we have seen sometimes in this White House.  I hope he knows what he’s doing, because the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Fitch Affirms United States at ‘AAA’; Outlook Stable   

11 Jan 2010 8:31 AM (EST)

Fitch Ratings-London/New York-11 January 2010: Fitch Ratings has today affirmed the United States’ (US) Long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) at ‘AAA’, respectively. The rating Outlook on the Long-term ratings is Stable. Fitch has simultaneously affirmed the US’ Country Ceiling at ‘AAA’ and the Short-term foreign currency rating at ‘F1+’.

“The near-term risk to the United States’ ‘AAA’ status is minimal given its exceptional financing and economic flexibility and the US dollar’s role as the world’s predominant reserve currency. However, difficult decisions will have to be made regarding spending and tax to underpin market confidence in the long-run sustainability of public finances and the commitment to low inflation,” said Brian Coulton, Head of Global Economics and the Primary Analyst for the US at Fitch.

“In the absence of measures to reduce the budget deficit over the next three-to-five years, government indebtedness will approach levels by the latter half of the decade that will bring pressure to bear on the US’ ‘AAA’ status,” added Coulton.

The US government remains exceptionally creditworthy – supported by its pivotal role in the global financial system and a flexible, diversified and wealthy economy that provides its revenue base – despite an unprecedented deterioration in fiscal performance. The government’s unparalleled financing flexibility enhances debt tolerance even relative to other large ‘AAA’-rated sovereigns, and has allowed the government to take aggressive counter-crisis and counter-cyclical policy measures, which now appear to be working in terms of restoring stability to the US financial sector and the economy.

However, the government faces significant medium term fiscal challenges with a sizeable structural deficit, a narrow tax base, limited expenditure flexibility and exposure to potential interest rate shocks due to the short duration and maturity of US government debt and a heavy reliance on foreign investors. Public debt on a general government (i.e. consolidated federal, state and local) basis is expected to rise to 89% of GDP in 2010 and 94% in 2011 from 79% of GDP in 2009, which would mark the highest level among ‘AAA’-rated sovereigns. Public debt was just 57% at end 2007.

The general government deficit – estimated by Fitch at 11.4% of GDP in 2009 and forecast at 11% in 2010 and 8.5% in 2011 – contains, in Fitch’s opinion, a sizeable structural component that will not be eliminated by the economic recovery and the unwinding of stimulus measures. Corporate taxes, in particular, collapsed in 2009 having been boosted by artificially strong financial sector profits and asset price gains in the years before the recession began and are unlikely to show a strong recovery. Fitch anticipates the economic recovery will be weak by the standards of previous recoveries and less dynamic than assumed in the latest official medium term fiscal forecasts. Deleveraging will continue to weigh on private sector demand, while rising long-term unemployment and the fall in investment through the recession could adversely affect supply side performance. In addition, while TARP related fiscal outlays have been lower than anticipated, fiscal risks relating to the financial sector remain, particularly with regard to Fannie Mae (‘AAA’/’F1+’/Outlook Stable) and Freddie Mac (‘AAA’/’F1+’/Outlook Stable).

Public debt levels compare particularly poorly with ‘AAA’-rated peers when expressed relative to fiscal revenue. General government debt was equivalent to 330% of revenues at end 2009 (even higher at 437% on a narrower central government basis), the highest among ‘AAA’-rated sovereigns and compared to a long-run ‘AAA’ average of 118%. Amongst high grade sovereigns, only Japan (‘AA’/’F1+’/Outlook Stable) and Ireland (‘AA-‘/’F1+’/Outlook Stable) have higher debt-to-revenue ratios. Debt interest payments are expected to rise to nearly 11% of revenue by 2011 and nearly 13% on a central government basis. Fiscal flexibility is also reduced by the limited scope for sizeable structural reductions in public expenditure, given low discretionary outlays and pressures on entitlement spending.

Both the dollar’s role as the predominant global reserve currency and the benchmark status of US Treasuries significantly reduce the scope for destabilising interest rate shocks. But the economy’s high external debt burden, the ongoing current account deficit and the high share of non-resident holdings of government debt (close to 50%) increase the potential for volatility in US asset prices if foreign investors were to become concerned about public debt sustainability or risks to the credibility of the monetary policy framework. With the average maturity of federal debt having shortened sharply over 2008 and 2009, rising interest rates would feed through to the budget relatively quickly.

Applicable criteria available on Fitch’s website at ‘Sovereign Rating Methodology’, dated October 16, 2009.

Contact: Brian Coulton, London, Tel: +44 (0) 20 7682 7497; David Riley, + 44 (0) 20 7417 6338; Shelly Shetty, New York + 1 212 980 0234.

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