By Tom Bradley
I came across a commentary in the Financial Times this week on the downgrade of U.S. government debt by the rating agency Standard and Poor’s. I highlight it because there’s a hate-on for the U.S. and we know all its warts. In arguing that S&P got it wrong, Bill Miller, Legg Mason’s legendary equity manager, provides some balance to the discussion.
"First, it is incredible that S&P should think the US is less creditworthy now than two weeks ago, when an agreement to raise the debt ceiling had not been reached, both parties appeared intransigent and contingency plans were being considered that included prioritising payments or even declaring the debt ceiling null and void. In any event, an agreement was reached that assures the ability of the US to fund its operations through the next election and initiated a process to tackle the nation’s long-standing fiscal imbalances."
"Second, S&P apparently gave little or no weight to the unique role the US plays in the global economy. The US is the world’s largest, most productive economy and the dollar remains the global reserve currency. The only possible alternative, the euro, is structurally flawed and is in what may turn out to be an existential crisis. Issuing its own currency means the US can settle its debts by printing more money if need be, so there is absolutely no question of its ability to pay."
"Third, the market says S&P is wrong. The US enjoys among the lowest interest rates in its history coincident with the highest deficits and a daunting long-term fiscal outlook. Yet when investors are looking for safe assets, they buy Treasuries. The US is borrowing at lower long-term rates than it did when it was running a budget surplus. In the 2008 crisis, investors flocked to Treasuries and the dollar because they sought the safest, most creditworthy assets in the world. S&P seems not to have noticed this."