S&P gets a tongue lashing over US downgrade
High-profile investors and top officials deliver fast and furious responses, though the ratings agency does have a defender or two.
For Warren Buffett and others, that's been the response to Standard & Poor's decision Friday to downgrade the U.S. credit rating by one notch to AA-plus from AAA.
Observers immediately jumped all over S&P for going where other ratings agencies would not, for getting too involved in politics and for unnecessarily making things worse.
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Buffett focused on the fact that the United States simply isn't going to run out of money to pay its debts. The U.S. economy produces $48,000 per person, he said, and the Federal Reserve can simply print more money if it needs to.
In other words, our politicians may deserve a downgrade, but our debt does not.
"Our currency is not AAA and in recent months the performance of our government has not been AAA, but our debt is AAA," Buffett said. His company, Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), has about $48 billion in cash and cash equivalents, and at least $40 billion of that is in U.S. Treasury bills. Buffett said he's still going to hold those.
"If anything, it may change my opinion on S&P," he said. Keep in mind that Berkshire is one of the biggest shareholders in Moody's, one of S&P's main rivals. (Moody's, by the way, affirmed its AAA rating for the U.S. Monday.)
Even Donald Trump says S&P is doing this for publicity. "I can just see these guys sitting in their little office on Wall Street, or wherever they are, saying, 'We're going to take down the United States!'" he told Fox News. "Because they want the publicity, because they want to restore their reputation. They love it."
Just about everyone seemed to have something to say over the weekend and Monday about the downgrade. Investors apparently were mortified, as evidenced by Monday's market tumble. This is after a 7.19% decline in the Standard & Poor's 500 index in the first five trading days in August. That, by the way, is the worst start to August in the index's history.
Geithner, keeping his seventh-grade tendencies in check, said S&P showed terrible judgment. The agency miscalculated its budget projections by trillions of dollars last week and went ahead with the downgrade even after Treasury officials pointed out the errors.
"They've handled themselves very poorly," Geithner said Sunday. And they've shown a stunning lack of knowledge about the basic U.S. fiscal budget math."
Investment banker Dan Alpert echoed Buffett's observations that the U.S. has no problem paying its debts and said that S&P waded too much into politics and delivered a "verbal spanking" to Congress and Americans. S&P's call "amounted to not much more than a guest in your house telling your children to clean up their rooms 'or else,'" Alpert wrote. "I don't know about you, but in my case, at least, I would ask such a guest to apologize or leave."
But S&P had one very important defender: Bill Gross, the co-founder of Pacific Investment Management. Gross runs one of the company's biggest funds and is a well-known investor.
He said he's been criticizing the ratings agencies for some time and S&P finally got it right. "They spoke to a dysfunctional political system and deficits as far as the eye can see," Gross said. "They are enforcing some discipline. My hat is off to them."
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