The credit rating agency Moody’s, at the end of February, downgraded the UK’s sovereign debt rating from AAA to AA1, relegating the UK to the second tier for the first time since 1978. The announcement made headline news, but it was far from unexpected and the possibility of a downgrade had been predicted; the coalition government is taking longer than expected to reduce the UK’s sizable deficit and all three leading credit rating agencies – Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s – had already placed the UK on a “negative” outlook during 2012, stoking expectations of a downgrade.
Government’s capacity to repay its debts
Credit ratings provide an indication of a government’s capacity to repay its debts, but any concerns about the downgrade leading to a rise in the borrowing costs for the UK appear overplayed, at least if the recent experiences of the US and France are any indication: the US lost its AAA status in August 2011 while France was downgraded in November 2012. The borrowing costs of both nations have declined since their respective downgrades while their main stockmarket indices have risen significantly.
Fiscal consolidation programme
The implications of the UK’s downgrade are likely to prove more political than economic. Moody’s announcement highlighted the challenges that “subdued medium-term growth prospects pose to the government’s fiscal consolidation programme” and the coalition government continues to face substantial challenges in its attempts to reduce the UK’s debt levels. Politicians have placed considerable value on the UK’s top credit rating – indeed, in the Conservative Party’s manifesto of spring 2010, George Osborne pledged to “safeguard Britain’s credit rating”. As such, the news of the downgrade puts more pressure on the Chancellor of the Exchequer than on the economy itself.
Catalyst for fresh trouble
Taking everything into consideration, a drop in the UK’s credit rating is not likely to make much difference to the fundamental performance or health of the country’s economy. Although Moody’s decision highlights the challenges that the government face, the downgrade itself is likely to represent a symptom of the existing problems rather than a catalyst for fresh trouble.
Promising growth prospects
The decline in the value of sterling is likely to continue, as investors move their money into currencies used by countries with more promising growth prospects. A weaker pound would certainly help exporters, but it also makes imports more expensive. The price of petrol has already risen over the past month, and further increases like this are likely to put more pressure on household incomes and company profits, as well as on economic growth as a whole. A lower credit rating could also make it more expensive for the UK to borrow money.
Longer to resolve than expected
In a similar way to borrowing from a High Street bank, if you are in a well-paid job and are living within your means, you will have to pay a lower interest rate on a loan than someone who the bank thinks is overstretched and maybe not able to keep up with repayments. At present, the UK needs to borrow more than £100bn a year from investors, both at home and around the world. It seems that the UK’s economic problems, in line with many other countries, will take longer to resolve than expected.