credit ratings

Claire Jones

Credit rating agencies haven’t had a good crisis. But central bankers’ and regulators’ frequent barbs seem a touch hypocritical when one considers how much they rely on them.

Both in determining which assets are eligible as collateral for open-market operations, and the risk weights for regulations, the big-three rating agencies play a fundamental role.

In the United States, that’s set to change. Under Dodd-Frank, the US authorities must remove credit rating references and requirements from their regulations.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has now done so. And on Wednesday, the Federal Reserve’s Mark van der Weide said the central bank was examining three possible alternatives to replace the use of ratings in its risk-based capital rules. Read more

Another day, another sovereign downgrade, it seems. But is there a regional basis to recent downgrade activity?

In short, yes. Read more

Moody’s expects the next Portuguese government, due to be elected on June 5, to seek a bail-out as “a matter of urgency”, and as a result, the agency has again downgraded the sovereign’s rating. The rating now stands one notch lower at Baa1, and remains on watch for further downgrade. The rating is still two notches higher than peers S&P and Fitch, both rating the sovereign BBB-.

Portuguese sovereign ratings, which had been falling, entered a downward spiral once the government stepped down. Moody’s, which has just cut by one notch, previously cut by two on March 16. S&P downgraded Portugal two notches on March 25 and a further notch on March 29. Fitch downgraded by two notches on March 24 and a further three notches on April 1. Overall, about five notches have been taken off the rating since the start of the year. Read more

Markets remain nervous about Ireland after yesterday’s stress test results – despite the fact they appeared thorough and the €24bn recapitalisation they recommend matches expectations. This has prompted Europe’s biggest clearing house LCH.Clearnet to again raise the margin requirement on clearing of Irish debt, back up to 45bp from 35bp. Effectively, this increases the cost of holding Irish bonds and decreases the cost of shorting them.

Should all this post-stress-test stress lead to another downgrade, as seems likely, Dublin will be protected to a large degree by a lifeline from the ECB, which has pre-emptively suspended its collateral requirement for the country. Read more

They must have read our post. S&P just downgraded Cyprus by one notch to A-, keeping the outlook negative. A negative outlook is supposed to mean a downgrade is possible within two years, all else equal. But then S&P last downgraded the debt of the small island economy in November, four months ago. S&P’s rating is now the lowest of the three rating agencies, with Moody’s at A2 (=A) and Fitch significantly above the others at AA. Fitch, however, placed the rating on credit watch negative in January, meaning the review should be completed by mid-April. S&P appears to be significantly rethinking the eurozone’s creditworthiness, particularly in light of details of the rescue fund: it has not been a good week for eurozone credit ratings, and further downgrades may follow tomorrow when Ireland releases details of its stress tests.

Deja vu? No, ratings agency Standard and Poors has cut Portugal’s credit rating for the second time in less than a week, this time one notch to BBB-, leaving the rating with a negative outlook. Last week the agency cut by two notches – the most it could reasonably cut, given an explicit indication that they would be “unlikely” to cut by more. The agency left the rating on negative creditwatch, but that is usually interpreted to mean a further cut is likely in three months, not three days.

Greek ratings, meanwhile, have been cut deeper into junk territory with a two notch downgrade to BB-. The rating remains on negative creditwatch meaning a further cut is likely if there is no improvement; typically, that would be within three months, but in the current climate, who knows?

In both cases, the downgrades have been prompted by the structure of the permanent eurozone rescue fund, the ESM, which was confirmed at the end of last week by eurozone leaders. Two things in particular. One is the issue of subordination Read more

The ESM term sheet claims its first casualty. As predicted, Standard and Poors rating agency has downgraded Portugal by two notches to BBB, leaving the rating on creditwatch negative, meaning another downgrade is likely within three months if there is no improvement in the country’s financial prospects. A further downgrade could place Portugal’s rating below investment grade: S&P’s rating is now just two notches above junk. But by then, the country will have passed or failed two significant tests: refinancing its debt in the markets in April and June.

S&P’s move is likely to be more significant than recent downgrades by Moody’s and Fitch. That’s because, first, S&P is leading the rating descent, having downgraded Portugal to its current Moody’s/Fitch level of A- in May of last year. (Moody’s and Fitch have only just downgraded to this level.) Second, the downgrade is significant because of timing. With a key vote on Portugal’s austerity package yet to pass and the PM stepping down, fiscal discipline will be further delayed. (This is one reason given by S&P for the move.) More than that, general elections are expected in a few months, and it would be very tempting for a new government to restructure its debt, laying the blame with its predecessors. Similar temptations must be present in Ireland.

Fitch has just downgraded Portugal two notches to A-, placing the rating on credit watch down, meaning that further downgrades are likely. It’s not great news for the Iberian nation, which faces increasing pressure for a bail-out as yields rise and domestic politics worsen. But the bigger ratings news is yet to happen and it is likely to come from Standard and Poors.

Fitch’s downgrade just brings its Portuguese government rating in line with those of its peers: all three main agencies now hold equivalent ratings. Moody’s downgraded Portugal two notches to A3 (=A-) about a week ago, leaving the rating with a negative outlook. S&P was quicker off the mark, lowering its rating in April 2010 and placing the rating on watch down on November 30. Read more

The night before a government debt auction, Moody’s concluded its review of Portugal with a two notch cut to their credit rating, which now stands at A3. The rating agency also left the sovereign issuer with a negative outlook, implying further downgrades are likely within two years if there is no improvement.

According to central bank forecasts, the economy will contract by 1.3 per cent this year, pushing Portugal into its second recession in three years. Citing subdued growth prospects and high borrowing costs, Moody’s actions might aggravate both issues today. Portugal is aiming to raise up to €1bn in 12-month Treasury Bills at auction and yields in the secondary market – an indication of the government’s cost of debt at auction – have risen this morning and remain near record highsRead more

The cost of rehabilitating the Spanish banking sector is partly behind Moody’s decision to downgrade Spanish government debt from Aa1 to Aa2 today. The rating has been left with a negative outlook, meaning a further downgrade is likely within two years if there is no improvement. Moody’s also completed its review of Greek debt with a three notch downgrade earlier this week. It seems the agency has saved the most sensitive review – that of Portugal – till last; it is due out before March 21 but is more likely to appear next week.

Moody’s decision completes a set of Spanish downgrades by all three main ratings agencies in recent weeks. S&P downgraded to AA (equivalent to Moody’s Aa2) on February 1, and Fitch downgraded to AA+ (equivalent to Moody’s Aa1) on March 4. Reasons given: Read more