By Paul Smalera
All views expressed are his own.
The Washington debt ceiling debate over these past months was the throwing open of the doors to the democratic slaughterhouse — let’s please not ever complain again about not being able to watch the sausage get made. Though our media window onto the killing floor surely contributed to the S&P’s downgrade of U.S. debt, that’s not an entirely bad thing, as I’ll explain in a moment.
The preemptive downgrade of U.S. debt breaks a disturbing ratings agency pattern: Too-late downgrades from S&P and the other ratings agencies in the cases of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Greece and Ireland among many others. In the econoblogosphere, reliably hind-sighted ratings-agency downgrades, whether of sovereign debt or a teetering company’s bonds, have come to be something of a dark joke. It’s overdue that S&P got itself back into predictive rather than reactive mode. Yet the company’s sovereign debt committee surely chose the wrong target in U.S. Treasuries and broke the late-downgrade pattern for all the wrong reasons.
The ratings agency’s decision reads like nothing other than a fit of pique towards the government institutions and American people that had come to blame it as a prime enabler of the global financial crisis. The agencies, as my colleague Christopher Whalen just wrote, “prostituted themselves and their special position of trust with respect to mortgage-backed securities and exotic derivatives.” To get a little more anatomical, executives at the ratings agencies churned out AAA ratings on CDOs and other risky debt — debt that their analysis should have shown to be junk-bond quality at best — because they risked losing business if they were too critical. (Call it the, “every John is the best lover ever” theory of credit rating.)
The S&P’s biggest blunder here is that the U.S., thanks to the debt deal everyone hates, will continue never missing a debt payment. A close second is that even if the U.S. had run out of borrowing power, Timothy Geithner and the Treasury Department surely had a “Plan B” that would’ve prioritized debt payments to avoid a default, probably for at least a few more months before its cash-on-hand situation became truly dire.
But the real reason the S&P was wrong to downgrade the U.S. is because what we all just witnessed in D.C. was, as the famous quote goes, the sausage being made. It was an open, democratic process. The Tea Party Republicans who blocked more moderate debt ceiling legislation are duly-elected representatives who were fighting hard for their constituents and beliefs, however radical. It may frustrate moderate or liberal voters to no end that Tea Party governance appears to be little more than obstruction, but that’s been the prerogative of minorities in divided governments for centuries. In the end, as analysts conceded, they were brutally effective in swaying the Obama administration and Senate Democrats much closer to their preferred, fiscally constrictive debt ceiling deal. Since when are political compromises supposed to be pretty?