S&P softens stance on debt rating debate

The president of a major credit rating agency said Wednesday that some of the plans being considered by lawmakers to reduce the deficit by less than $4 trillion could still preserve the United States’ sterling credit rating.

The remarks by Deven Sharma of Standard & Poor’s clarified a July 14 research note in which the company said a $4 trillion cut would allow the country to avoid a credit downgrade. Sharma said media reports “misquoted” that paper and inaccurately stated that the company was calling for that specific threshold.

Sharma, who was speaking at a congressional hearing, was careful not to take sides between the competing plans proposed by Democrats and Republicans. His comments preserved his company’s ability to reserve its judgement, but it also frustrated some lawmakers, who found his answers vague.

The plans to cut long-term spending have only been growing smaller, from President Obama’s original “grand bargain” goal of $4 trillion to a GOP proposal that would slice more than $900 billion as a condition of raising the country’s borrowing limit.

If Congress fails to agree on any plan by Aug. 2, the rating agencies have said, they will downgrade the country’s coveted AAA rating. That would undercut the United States’ financial standing in the world and its ability to borrow at extraordinarily cheap rates.

The hearing’s focus was on whether the rating agencies have amended their ways since the financial crisis. Lawmakers lambasted the big credit rating agencies’ performance during the housing bubble, during which they routinely assigned top-notch ratings to mortgage-backed securities that subsequently went sour.

But the discussion then turned to how these firms would react if Congress didn’t slash enough spending.

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) , who pressed Sharma on the July 14 research note during the hearing, said in a later interview that he found Sharma’s answers “somewhat contradictory.” Without offering specifics, Sharma said some of the budget savings plans could preserve the rating while others would not, Garrett said.

A spokesperson for S&P said the company would issue a statement on a particular plan “once something is formalized,” noting that it is against company policy to comment on draft proposals.

Michael Rowan, a global managing director with Moody’s Investors Service, another major rating agency, was equally vague during the hearing when Garrett posed his questions.

“Congressman, I’m not a rating analyst,” Rowan told Garrett. “But Moody’s has, you know, placed the rating for the U.S. government under review for possible downgrade.”

Still, Garrett said he came out of the hearing convinced that “we should be aiming at a $4 trillion range.”

The United States is not the only country in S&P’s sights. As the hearing wrapped up, the agency further cut its ratings on Greece, creating even more trouble for the debt-burdened nation.

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