What does a credit rating mean?

Credit ratings agencies have come under fire for not being proactive enough in recognizing bad sovereign risks. Even if the ratings agencies were a little quicker with the downgrades, the result would not be significantly different for investors. This is because there are two paths to default.

Credit ratings agencies exist to measure one thing – the risk that an entity will explicitly default on its obligations. In this regard, ratings agencies by-and-large do fairly well. What they do not do well (nor is it their job), is to assess the risk of the other default, the one by inflation.

Charles Goodhart argues that we can see the distinction if we compare the plights of two countries. England has high debt to GDP levels, yet has retained its rating through the recent downward revisions. France, by comparison, has lower debt levels and was recently downgraded. What gives?

Some would argue, as the ratings agencies do, that France is threatened because she cannot inflate her worries away. The Euro blocks this option, as Paris must succumb to Frankfurt on monetary affairs.  England faces no such constraint, or at least, not an insurmountable one. The Bank of England might be nominally independent from Her Majesty’s Government. Yet what the crown gives it can take away. The BoE can be a direct policy arm of parliament if need be. When faced with insolvency, such a course of action is foreseeable.

Inflation (both measured and expected) is already higher in the UK than in France. While the investor buying French debt worries about a small chance at not getting his money back, the buyer of British bonds faces the fact that the bond’s nominal value is continually eroded at a faster rate than his French counterpart.

For the investor, it makes no difference which default occurs. Whether explicitly at a moment through insolvency or slowly through inflation, the effect is the same. Long drawn out tortures can be just as effective as swift death sentences (sometimes more so).

Investors fixated on credit ratings are cognizant of only half the story. Given this, one wonders if the official ratings mean anything at all.

Take the United States, for example. Its recent downgrade brought into question Washington’s ability to pay off its national debt (among other obligations). But that was just making explicit what was already implicit for decades. As inflation ate away at the nominal value of the debt, the country was slowly defaulting by another means.

Some may look at the low interest rates on US Treasuries right now, and argue that the risk of default is low. These investors would likely be correct. One could also argue that interest rates are low because the Fed has been purchasing large quantities of them, and without this intervention rates would signal a much different story. This story is also likely correct. But the latter story is just removing the explicit default risk from the Treasury and giving it to the Fed. The Fed will just buy more bonds from the Treasury to finance the payoff of the existing ones if the threat of default nears. This amounts to default not at the hands of Treasury, not explicitly anyhow. This becomes a Fed-orchestrated default, through the process of inflation.

Rating agencies do investors a great favour by pointing out the explicit default risk of different debt securities. Investors would do well to recognize the limited relevance of these ratings, especially in light of the continual implicit defaults we are exposed to through inflation.


  • mrg says:

    Excellent article, though it grates to hear buyers of government bonds referred to as investors.

    • Robert Sadler says:

      Well said mrg.

      As a lender, I can say that (counter-intuitively it may seem) credit ratings calculated by the credit agencies mean very little to me. We make our lending decisions based on our own analysis of the borrowers ability to pay us back. We consider recession and depression scenarios as well as booms. We put our money where our mouth is but the credit agencies don’t. In fact, they are paid by the issuers of debt to make their ratings. That’s all you need to know about credit agencies.

      • David Howden says:

        Just to add to what Robert Sadler´s comment, I personally don´t place much importance on the rating. The interest rate already includes an implicit rating of what investors think, and this is likely more accurate than what the rating agency assigns. If we just looked at yields we see in a hurry what the expected risk is, and we would avoid all the perverse incentives that ratings agencies face.

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