Friday, August 5, 2011

Shooting the Messenger

There is no such thing as a riskless bond. Never was, never will be.

But if there were, it would not be issued by the United States Treasury. Today, S&P downgraded US sovereign debt from AAA to AA+.

Zero Hedge is having a field day with this. They linked to this piece noting that the White House challenged S&P's economic analysis, and that this was the thing that delayed the announcement slightly as S&P decided whether to sack up and call it the way they see it, or bend over and be the Government's toady.

The reaction of the administration is quite revealing. Because we all know that S&P is the real problem. S&P's models (and everyone else's) say that US debt is looking increasingly risky. The models must be wrong, because we at the Obama Administration just know that it's going to all be fine. Just ask Timmy 'TurboTax' Geithner, who as recently as April declared there was 'no risk' the US would be downgraded.

If you, like me, are tempted to conclude that he's a dumbass, (and you would not be short of evidence for this proposition), it's worth remembering that he might just be being dishonest as part of his job. In other words, he has to be the cheerleader for the US government, yelling furiously that the ship isn't sinking so that people don't get trampled on the way to the lifeboats.

The nature of the immediate problem, of course, is that things get a little tricky when US debt isn't considered risk-free, as a bunch of institutions are required to hold AAA securities as collateral for various reasons. And now they may have to start dumping treasuries, pushing yields up even further. Fun times!

The nature of the longer term problem, of course, is that S&P is exactly right - the debt ceiling debate is a mess, and nobody is interested in tackling the question of long-term "entitlements" (I dislike that word) in health spending and, to a lesser extent, social security. And S&P decided, again rightly, that since their job is to rate bonds, then by golly they're going to call a risky bond risky, because it's not their job to cover the government's ass for the government's own reckless behaviour.

It's exactly the same as with TARP. The banks yell and shout 'We're in a liquidity crisis, and need a temporary loan!'. Skeptics pointed out that what they actually had was a solvency crisis, which needs not a loan, but a giant equity infusion (i.e. a cheque they get to keep). Most of the banks were insolvent, and that was causing the liquidity crisis. You could throw liquidity at the problem (which is what TARP originally purported to do) , but until you made the politically unpalatable choice to actually bail them out (which is what TARP actually did), liquidity crises will keep returning.

It's the same now with the US government. Except they don't have anyone to bail them out, and so they're going with the only plan they seem to have, namely hoping that the inevitable market reaction happens later, rather than sooner. Ideally after they're out of office.

In other news, it's bullish for equities!

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