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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Fitch downgrades Latvia to BBB+

Fitch ratings agency has downgraded Latvia’s foreign currency issuer default rating (IDR) to ‘BBB+’ from ‘A-. It has also downgraded the Latvia's currency IDR to ‘BBB+‘ from A, –‘both of these ratings with a stable outlook. In defence of its decision Fitch argues that the Latvian economy is severely overheating (and who can disagree about that) whilst considering the policy reaction of the Latvian government to be insufficient to restore the economy to a sustainable growth path (again it is hard to disagree, although it would be simply unjust to pour all the blame on the Latvian government here, since there are important structural factors at work which are to some considerable extent beyond the control of the Latvian government”. For a fuller analysis of this see this post, and this one.

At the end of the day it is hard to disagree with Fitch and the downgrade should as such not have come as a surprise, especially since Standard & Poor’s earlier this year also made a similar downgrade, and we are still only waiting to hear from Moody's (who still maintain an A2 investment grade on Latvian sovereign deb). Should Moody's also revise their rating then Latvia would be without a single investment grade rating from a ratings agency, and their would be consequences from this since the ECB have earlier signalled that they are no longer prepared to accept paper from countries in this position as collateral (more on this below).

But there is another issue which arises here, and that is the actual role of credit ratings agencies in protecting both investors from serious financial risk, and citizens of sovereign states from the profligate practices of their political leaders.

This issue has recently been getting some coverage in the case of Italy, where of course public debt has over the last decade spiraled upwards almost out of control (to 107% of GDP) and the European Commission has proved itself to be completely incapable of rising to the challenge which this situation presents in the context of Italy's rapidly ageing population. (For more analysis of the role of the credit agencies in the Italian context see this post).

The ratings agencies question has also been entering particularly muddied waters in recent days due to the insistance of some EU Commissioners and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy on holding an investigation into the role of these self same agencies in the US sub-prime mortgages problem.

Now why am I pointing the finger especially at Nicolas Sarkozy here? Well, according to the Financial Times:

In a letter to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and acting president of the group of eight industrialised nations, which includes the G7, Mr Sarkozy highlighted his concerns over the weaknesses of the international financial system revealed by the present crisis.

He called for G7 finance ministers to draw up proposals for their meeting in Washington in October to address transparency and risk awareness among market participants and regulators.

He said the G7 should join the European Commission in investigating the role played by credit ratings agencies in the crisis, and said that bank involvement in credit markets should also be addressed.

Now obviously, in general terms, there may be little to disagree with here. A nice theoretical discussion of transparency, and the role of the ratings agencies (which could also be extended to the role of the EU Commission and the ECB when it comes to the tricky question of the sovereign debt ratings of some delicate EU member states, including unfortunately the Baltic ones) may well be in order. But, I ask you, is now, precisely now, the moment to be airing all this. Isn't the number one priority for everyone right now to settle the global financial markets down, and to try and pass through this storm without incurring any excess damage?

But no, we need a scapegoat for our problems apparently, and the scapegoat it would seem is to be the ratings agencies, forgetting conveniently in the process that only last week they were being regarded as the last firewall of our collective defence.

So what do you expect, the agencies themselves hit back, at least to cover themselves. On Thursday it was Chris Mahoney, vice chairman of Moody's who responded in kind:

Moody's Investors Service fueled concern that the global credit crisis is worsening by speculating that a hedge fund collapse on the same scale as Long-Term Capital Management LP in 1998 is possible.

Hedge funds face potential losses on collateralized debt obligations, securities packaging bonds, loans and other assets, Chris Mahoney, vice chairman of Moody's, said on a conference call today. The funds are unable to agree on prices to sell riskier assets, causing the market to seize up, Mahoney said.

Then on Friday it was the turn of Fitch:

Latvia's long-term sovereign rating was cut to BBB+ from A- by Fitch Rating Service as government plans to keep the economy from overheating are ``insufficient.''

Now I really don't see that you can expect the ratings agencies to respond in any other way. You suggest you want to criticise them for being insufficiently vigilant, and so naturally they respond by starting to be "extra-vigilant". You can hardly blame them for this.

But as I indicate above, this decision by Fitch also begins to put the ECB in an interesting situation. Let us go back to November 2005, and the ECB decison to only accept bonds with at least a single A- rating from one or more of the main rating agencies as collateral in its financial market activities (and the original article here).

Well technically Latvia still has an A2 rating from Moody's, and this is equivalent to an A- (as has Italy in the case of Moody's), so the ECB will in theory continue to accept Latvian paper, but at this pace it would only seem to be a matter of time before Moody's downgrade too, especially with Sarkozy loading on the pressure. This will, apart from making it much more difficult for the Latvian government to raise credit, effectively take away the guarantee which underpins the present structural distortion in the Latvian economy, put even more distance between Latvia and membership of the euro, and complicate the task of the Latvian government in trying to steer the economy forward. Bottom line: is all of this a good idea. Answer: what you ask for is what you get, so my advice in future is to think first before opening your mouth.

The principal point I want to make here is that while in the normal course of events such downgrades - or the threat of them - may serve a useful purpose by putting pressure on governments to change course, in the current climate these very same downgrades may only serve to provoke the very situation which they are intended to avert, and that is the danger now. Let us remember what Buttonwood wisely, and possibly presciently, said:

As central banks lose authority, might credit-rating agencies play the watchdog role? By acting swiftly to downgrade debt, they would constrain companies (and countries) from borrowing too much. But the agencies tend to lean with the wind, rather than against it. They upgrade debt when the economy is booming and downgrade it when recession strikes. If the central banks do eventually slam on the brakes, therefore, the rating agencies will only exacerbate the downturn. As asset ratings fall, investors will be forced to sell their holdings and credit will be withdrawn from the system. Thanks to the financial markets, central banks now struggle to police the economy. But this may imply that the bust, when it comes, is as hard to control as the boom that preceded it.

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