By James Kwak
So, Standard and Poor’s went ahead and downgraded the United States yesterday, apparently because we have a dysfunctional political system. Who knew?
As I said before, I don’t think that S&P has added anything new to the world’s stock of information. In the short term, the most worrying thing about a downgrade is what I called the “legal-mechanical consequences”: the possibility that investors, who value their own opinions more than S&P’s anyway, might have to dump Treasuries because they are no longer AAA. Apparently, this is not going be a huge problem. Binyamin Appelbaum of the Times says that (a) many of the rules place Treasuries in a different category from other AAA securities to begin with and (b) since the downgrade only affects long-term debt, money-market mutual funds are safe.
Still, I think the whole thing is preposterous. S&P downgrading the United States is like Consumer Reports downgrading Coca-Cola. Consumer Reports is a great institution. For example, if you want to know how reliable a 2007 Ford Explorer is going to be, they have done more research than anyone to figure out the reliability history of every single vehicle. Those ratings are a real public service, since they add information to the world. But when it comes to Coke and Pepsi, everyone has an opinion already, and no one cares which one, according to Consumer Reports, “really” tastes better. When S&P rated some tranche of a CDO AAA back in 2006, it meant that some poor analyst had run some model fed to her by an investment bank and made sure that the rows and columns added up correctly, and the default probability percentage at the end was below some threshold. It might have been crappy information, but it was new information. When S&P rates long-term Treasuries AA+, it means . . . nothing. And if any serious buy-side investor were tempted to take S&P’s rating into account, she would be deterred by the fact that the analysis that produced the rating included a $2 trillion arithmetic error.