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Economy: Rating Agencies

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2013

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the role of rating agencies and the impact of any downgrade of the United Kingdom’s rating.

My Lords, last Friday Moody’s downgraded the UK rating to AA1, with a stable outlook. It says that the UK’s credit-worthiness remains extremely high but warns that it could downgrade the UK rating further in the event of,

“reduced political commitment to fiscal consolidation”.

The credit rating is one of the important benchmarks for any country but near-historic low gilt yields continue to reflect the credibility earned by the Government’s economic strategy.

I think I thank the Minister for that Answer. If it is all so good now, why did he covet the AAA rating so strongly? Is it not true that the United States had a downgrading, and that it was not a problem and interest rates remain low? Another risk is that the pound will drop further. If it does, there is a real risk to lenders, who could lose a lot of money as it is repaid in downgraded pounds. In those circumstances, would the Chancellor be minded to do anything at all?

I thank the noble Lord for those observations, which contain several of different questions. If you review Moody’s analysis of the UK economy you could not see a stronger recommendation of the Government’s policy of fiscal consolidation. I commend it to everybody as background to policy and why it is the appropriate one in these circumstances.

On the specific question about the impact of currency movements on the exposure of various lenders, my experience in those markets tells me that lenders manage their currency exposures very effectively and that the currency devaluation should not increase those particular exposures.

Will my noble friend confirm that it is the same rating agencies that are apparently of such concern to the Opposition which told us that the junk collections of mortgages, which in part caused the financial crisis, were AAA-rated? Should we not look at what is happening in the real economy rather than at what rating agencies are saying about it? Is it not true that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is presiding over a remarkable situation, given the shambles that he inherited from the previous Government?

As always, I thank my noble friend for his important observations. There are, again, several issues in there. First, he is absolutely right—Moody’s refers to this—that two things have caused this downgrade. The first is the sluggish growth of the global economy, which has slowed down the British economy; and the second is the very high levels of public and domestic debt, and the difficulty in driving those down.

On the second point, with respect to the credibility of the rating agencies, there are some very important issues surrounding that, particularly when one discusses complex securities such as the ones that we had in the mortgage-backed market. Frankly, with respect to the sovereign market, all the information used to determine credit assessments is perfectly visible to everyone, which is why the markets’ reaction to the downgrade on Friday was so measured.

My Lords, bearing in mind that these agencies give the same grade to an enormous and widely different range of borrowers, leading economists pointed out a long time ago that they cannot be, and should not be, taken seriously. Also, is the Minister aware that all the best economic research shows that one major force exacerbating the economic troubles of the past few years has been the rating agencies? Would he remind the House who is supposed to be regulating these agencies and why they have not intervened? If they have not intervened, is it not about time that someone did something about them? These agencies are a real danger to the survival of the world economy, and I am amazed that the Chancellor himself takes them seriously.

The noble Lord makes some very important observations. First, as I am sure he knows, one of the rating agencies is being sued by the US Government, reflecting the very concerns that he brings out. With respect to relatively simple credit considerations, and in terms of the UK economy the information is all out there, the Chancellor’s economic policy and the performance of the UK economy is evaluated every second of every day by the financial markets. The verdict of those markets is reflected in our historically low gilt yields. This morning we were trading in the 10-year gilt below 2%, which is the most profound commentary on the success of the UK Government’s current economic policy.

My Lords, the underlying issue is surely growth. Yesterday, Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank of England, floated the idea of levying a penalty on banks that park their money at the central bank rather than putting it into the real economy. What comment does the Minister have to make on that strategy?

My noble friend raises the question of monetary policy. We have had a number of debates on creativity to restore a focus on growth and not purely on short-term inflation targeting. All these ideas are welcome and demonstrate the importance of generating growth. We should have the debate but be very focused on sticking to a monetary policy that understands the importance of the medium-term inflation target, while accepting a degree of flexibility around output.

Some specific measures that the Government have taken, such as FLS, were recommended in the Moody’s review as a very positive sign, so other ideas should certainly be debated and considered.

My Lords, could the Minister tell the House whether it is better to borrow to fund the fiscal costs of negligible growth or to fund the expansion in investment and growth?

My Lords, I am not sure that I accept the specific question of my noble friend. It is better to have an entirely consistent strategy of fiscal consolidation to ensure that we regain our credibility in the financial markets so that we can continue to borrow at these historic low rates. If we have a choice between funding capital spend—let us call it that—and current spend, all other things being equal, I would choose capital spend. We saw that in the Autumn Statement, when the Government switched £5.5 billion, if my memory is correct, into financing capital spending because that yields better to improve the growth process. However, it all needs to be done in the context of balancing other important consumer and political objectives.