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Are the Ratings Agencies Abandoning Fiscal Austerity?

Despite downgrades, even ratings agencies may be figuring out the economies in peril can't be helped by mindless cuts and contractions.

So the ratings agencies have finally followed through on the big threat and downgraded a number of the eurozone’s credit ratings, including France and Austria, both of which have now lost their coveted Triple AAA status. Italy, Portugal and Spain were downgraded a further two notches.

What does this mean and why does it matter?

Investors (often badly informed) use ratings agencies like Fitch, Moody’s and S&P as an indicator of default risk of a country. Countries that receive lower credit ratings are at a disadvantage when they sell bonds because buyers will not pay as much for bonds from a country perceived to be at risk. In effect, ratings agencies are able to bully countries into adopting policies that are friendly to the ratings agencies’ investors. A compliant government often reacts like Pavlov’s dog to the threat or implementation of a downgrade, putting aside the interests of its citizens and starting to introduce discretionary contractions in its net spending, which it does by either raising taxes or cutting spending.

The Eurozone’s Financial House of Cards

My take is that the ratings downgrade causes a vicious cycle in which countries will end up adopting policies that will put their economies even more at risk than they were already. The reason for this is that in Europe, you’ve got a flawed financial structure that can’t be fixed by austerity measures because it is incapable of dealing with huge external shocks to the demand for goods and services on the part of consumers.

Eurozone countries have faced two types of problems by entering the euro regime that have made them unstable.

First, they have given up their monetary sovereignty by giving up their national currencies and adopting a supranational one. By divorcing the fiscal authority (that which governs a country’s public treasury) from the monetary authority (that which governs the supply of money) member countries have relinquished their public sector’s capacity to provide high levels of employment and output because they are restricted in what they can spend and how they can introduce stimulation in the form of jobs programs or infrastructure projects.

Second, by entering the eurozone, these countries have also agreed to abide by something called the Maastricht Treaty, an agreement which created the European Union and led to the creation of the euro in 1992. This treaty restricts each member country’s budget deficit to only 3 % and debt to 60% of GDP. Therefore, even if a country is able to borrow and finance its deficit spending, like Germany and France, it is not supposed to use fiscal policy above those limits. So countries have resorted to different means to keep their national economies afloat, from trying to foster the export sector, as Germany does, to cooking the books through Wall Street wizardry, like Greece and Italy did. Nations that exceed the limits by the greatest amounts are punished with high interest rates that drive them into a vicious death spiral because deficits rise and lead to further credit downgrades. That is what has happened to Greece, Ireland, Portugal, etc., and now threatens Italy and Spain. Vultures will soon be looking further into the core to places like France.

By contrast, a sovereign government which issued its own currency (such as the US or Canada) could respond to a huge drop in economic activity by expanding fiscal stimulus, or allowing the currency to fall (thereby enhancing growth through exports). On the other hand, eurozone governments ceded their national currencies to the European Central Bank (ECB), the sole entity that can issue unlimited amounts of euros. That is why we’re left with a situation in which the solvency crisis can only be solved by the ECB: It is the only entity which is in a position to buy unlimited quantities of national sovereign bonds in order to ensure that these countries do not continue to pay ruinous rates of interest and suffer further declines in economic activity as a consequence. Fiscal austerity only adds to the problem.

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