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Summers, El-Erian pile criticism on Fitch downgrade decision

Summers, El-Erian pile criticism on Fitch downgrade decision
Fitch Ratings in New York, New York, US. (Photo: EPA / Justin Lane)

Prominent economists Larry Summers and Mohamed El-Erian joined a cohort of their peers in criticising Fitch Ratings’ decision to downgrade the US given signs of resilience in the world’s largest economy.

Former Treasury Secretary Summers said while there are reasons for concern about the long-run trajectory of the US deficit, the country’s ability to service its debts wasn’t in doubt. El-Erian, chief economic adviser to Allianz SE, said the downgrade was “a strange move” that was unlikely to impact markets.

“The idea that this is creating the risk of a default on US Treasury securities is absurd, and I don’t think that Fitch has any new and useful insights into the situation,” Summers said in a telephone interview. “If anything, the data in the last couple of months has been that the economy is stronger than what people thought, which is good for the creditworthiness of US debt.”

“I can’t imagine any serious credit analyst is going to give this weight,” he said.

Economic shocks

Fitch cut its US rating by one step to AA+ from AAA, saying tax cuts and new spending initiatives along with a number of economic shocks have pushed up budget deficits. The move follows a decision by S&P Global Ratings to downgrade the US from its top-tier in 2011, and leaves Moody’s Investors Service as the only one of the main ratings agencies to keep the nation at its highest level.

A bipartisan agreement to suspend the US debt ceiling was reached in early June after a drawn-out process of negotiation.

“The vast majority of economists and market analysts looking at this are likely to be equally perplexed by the reasons cited and the timing,” El-Erian wrote in a post on Twitter, the social media platform being renamed X. “This announcement is much more likely to be dismissed than have a lasting disruptive impact on the US economy and markets.”

The immediate reaction of financial markets in Asia was relatively muted. Treasuries edged higher as the decision counter-intuitively boosted demand for debt issued by the world’s biggest economy as a haven. The dollar rose against most of its major peers, while US stock futures ticked lower.

‘Completely absurd’

“Fitch downgrades the U.S., a decision widely and correctly ridiculed; it doesn’t make sense even on their own stated criteria,” Noble laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman posted on Twitter. “There’s surely a story behind this — but whatever it is, it’s a story about Fitch, not about U.S. solvency,” he said.

Fitch’s decision was “completely absurd”, said Jason Furman, a professor of economist practice at Harvard University and a top economic adviser to former president Barack Obama. 

“The United States is so well within the AAA zone that small changes one way or the other in any of these shouldn’t matter,” Furman wrote in a post on Twitter, referring to improvements in Fitch’s own key criteria such as macroeconomic performance and the US debt-to-GDP ratio.

In addressing the criticisms, James McCormack, global head of sovereign and supranational ratings for Fitch Ratings, said the downgrade was based on the medium-term fiscal outlook for the US, “which is characterised by rising deficits and government debt”, rather than predictions of a potential recession, he wrote in an emailed response to questions.

“In our view, US fiscal metrics will compare less favourably with rating peers in the period ahead, and we are not confident in policy measures being agreed and implemented to address the fiscal deterioration,” McCormack wrote. DM

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