READ: Fitch puts U.S. government credit on ‘Ratings Watch Negative’

October 15, 2013
Is it sunrise, or sunset, for the American economy? (AFP PHOTO / Files / Jewel SAMAD)
Is it sunrise, or sunset, for the American economy? (AFP PHOTO / Files / Jewel SAMAD)

Fitch, one of the three major credit rating agencies, isn't so sure that the U.S. government deserves its AAA credit rating. The company announced late Tuesday that the standoff over the debt ceiling is enough that it is putting the United States on a negative ratings watch, a first step toward a potential downgrade. Recall that in August 2011, Standard & Poor's, another of the three major rating agencies, downgraded U.S. debt after a similar standoff over the debt ceiling. Here is Fitch's announcement, explaining its rationale. The full announcement is here.

FITCH PLACES UNITED STATES' 'AAA' ON RATING WATCH NEGATIVE

Fitch Ratings-New York/London-15 October 2013: Fitch Ratings has placed the
United States of America's (U.S.) 'AAA' Long-term foreign and local currency
Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) on Rating Watch Negative (RWN). The ratings of all
outstanding U.S. sovereign debt securities have also been placed on RWN, as has
the U.S. Short-term foreign currency rating of 'F1+'. The Outlook on the
Long-term ratings was previously Negative. The U.S. Country Ceiling has been
affirmed at 'AAA'.

Fitch expects to resolve the RWN by the end of Q114 at the latest, although
timing would necessarily reflect developments and events, including the duration
of any agreement to raise the debt ceiling.

KEY RATING DRIVERS

In line with Fitch's previous statements, the RWN reflects the following key
rating drivers and their relative weights:

High
- The U.S. authorities have not raised the federal debt ceiling in a timely
manner before the Treasury exhausts extraordinary measures. The U.S. Treasury
Secretary has said that extraordinary measures will be exhausted by 17 October,
leaving cash reserves of just USD30bn. Although Fitch continues to believe that
the debt ceiling will be raised soon, the political brinkmanship and reduced
financing flexibility could increase the risk of a U.S. default.

- Although the Treasury would still have limited capacity to make payments after
17 October it would be exposed to volatile revenue and expenditure flows. The
Treasury may be unable to prioritise debt service, and it is unclear whether it
even has the legal authority to do so. The U.S. risks being forced to incur
widespread delays of payments to suppliers and employees, as well as social
security payments to citizens -  all of which would damage the perception of
U.S. sovereign creditworthiness and the economy.

- The prolonged negotiations over raising the debt ceiling (following the
episode in August 2011) risks undermining confidence in the role of the U.S.
dollar as the preeminent global reserve currency, by casting doubt over the full
faith and credit of the U.S. This "faith" is a key reason why the U.S. 'AAA'
rating can tolerate a substantially higher level of public debt than other 'AAA'
sovereigns.

Medium

- The repeated brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling also dents confidence
in the effectiveness of the U.S. government and political institutions, and in
the coherence and credibility of economic policy. It will also have some
detrimental effect on the U.S. economy.

The 'AAA' rating reflects the U.S.'s strong economic and credit fundamentals,
including:

- Its highly productive, diversified and wealthy economy; extraordinary monetary
and exchange rate flexibility; and the exceptional financing flexibility
afforded by the global reserve currency status of the U.S. dollar and the depth
and liquidity of domestic capital markets - in particular the U.S. Treasury
market. The U.S. sovereign credit profile also benefits from the respect for
property rights, the rule of law and a high degree of social stability.

- Fitch continues to judge that the U.S. economy (and hence tax base) remains
more dynamic and resilient to shocks than its high-grade rating peers. Fiscal
and macroeconomic risks emanating from the financial sector are generally low
and diminishing and becoming supportive of, rather than a drag on, economic
growth. Fitch forecasts economic growth to pick up from 1.6% in 2013 to 2.6% in
in 2014 and to average 3% over 2015-17, before reverting to its assumed long-run
trend growth rate of 2.25%. The projected recovery is supported by easing
headwinds from private sector debt deleveraging, a pick-up in the housing market
and a gradual decline in unemployment.

- The 'AAA' rating also reflects the halving of the federal budget deficit since
2010, which is now approaching a level consistent with debt stabilisation. The
Budget Control Act passed in August 2011 implied significant fiscal
consolidation and Congress and the Administration have adhered to the automatic
spending cuts - the sequester - specified under the Act in the absence of
agreement on an alternative and equivalent set of deficit-reduction measures. In
addition, the passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Act on 1 January 2013,
which implied a tax increase of more than USD600bn, has also contributed to the
deficit reduction effort.

- Fitch's medium-term fiscal projections imply federal and general government
(which includes states and local governments) gross debt stabilising next year
and over the remainder of the decade at around 72% and 104% of GDP,
respectively. This is below the 80% and 110% thresholds that Fitch previously
identified as being inconsistent with the U.S. retaining its 'AAA' status.

- Nevertheless, public debt stabilisation at such elevated levels still render
the US economy and public finances vulnerable to adverse shocks and in the
absence of additional spending reform and revenue measures, deficits and debt
will begin to rise again at the end of the decade. The U.S. is the most heavily
indebted 'AAA' rated sovereign, with a gross debt ratio equivalent to double
that of the 'AAA' median.

RATING SENSITIVITIES
The RWN reflects the following risk factors that may individually or
collectively result in a downgrade of the ratings:

- Failure by the government to honour interest and/or principal payments on the
due date of U.S. Treasury securities would lead Fitch to downgrade the U.S.
sovereign IDR to 'Restricted Default' (RD) until the default event was cured. We
would also downgrade the rating of the affected issue(s) to 'B+' from 'AAA', the
highest rating for securities in default in expectation of full or near-full
recovery. Debt securities approaching maturity or those with approaching coupon
payments would be vulnerable to a downgrade. The Country Ceiling would likely
remain 'AAA'.

In the event of a deal to raise the debt ceiling and to resolve the government
shutdown, which Fitch expects, the outcome of a subsequent review of the ratings
would take into account the manner and duration of the agreement and the
perceived risk of a similar episode occurring in the future. It would also
reflect Fitch's assessment of the following main factors:

- The impact of the debt ceiling brinkmanship and government shutdown on our
assessment of the effectiveness of government and political institutions, the
coherence and credibility of economic policy, the potential long-term impact on
the U.S. sovereign's cost of funding and cost of capital for the economy as a
whole, and the implications for long-term growth.

- Our assessment of the prospects for further deficit-reduction measures in
future years necessary to contain government deficits in the face of long-term
spending pressures and place public debt on a downward path over the medium to
long term.

KEY ASSUMPTIONS
Fitch continues to believe that an agreement will be reached to end the current
political impasse and raise the U.S. debt ceiling. Even if the debt limit is not
raised before or shortly after 17 October, we assume there is sufficient
political will and capacity to ensure that Treasury securities will continue to
be honoured in full and on time.

Fitch's federal debt projections reflect its economic and fiscal policy
assumptions and were detailed in the Special Report, 'U.S. Medium-Term Fiscal
Projections - An Update' (dated 28 June 2013; see link below). Subsequent to
that analysis, the Bureau of Economic Analysis revised the level of GDP up by
around 3.4% due to revisions in the way GDP is calculated, including
reclassifying spending on R&D and intellectual property as investment. This has
had the statistical effect of lowering debt/GDP ratios, but has not
significantly affected the trajectory of debt dynamics or its sensitivity to
shocks. Since the June review, Fitch has revised down its forecasts for GDP
growth for 2013 to 1.6% from 1.9% and for 2014 to 2.6% from 2.8%.

Fitch's medium-term fiscal projections incorporate assumptions regarding the
medium-term growth potential of the US economy and do not incorporate potential
upside benefits from shale gas or downside risks emanating from the eurozone and
elsewhere. They draw heavily upon Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections,
including CBO assumptions and judgements regarding the take up of various
benefits as well as the rate of growth of health care spending.

Financial sector risks are currently judged to be low as reflected by Fitch's
stable outlook for the U.S. banking sector.

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