Pity poor Standard & Poor's. The rating agency is the focus of criticism from all sides.
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Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner called their downgrade of long-term treasury "terrible" and said the move "showed a stunning lack of knowledge about basic U.S fiscal math."
The president himself said a more appropriate rating should be quadruple A. From the right, Steve Forbes described it as outrageous. But frankly, it's not. We've got a spending problem and anyone who's spent more than a casual hour pouring through the numbers knows that. Forty cents of every dollar spent by the federal government has to be borrowed.
Our federal debt equals the sum total that our economy produces every year: $14 trillion. Entitlement programs are on the verge of breaking down because of the spending burden. Even so, the downgrade stung. It's a humiliation and an embarrassment. And, the rating agency hasn't done itself any favors by sharing much about the people who made the decision, or how they work.
We've heard from the execs -- S&P President Deven Sharma and Debt Committee Chairman John Chambers, and David Beers, the Global Ratings chief. But what about the people in the trenches who made the actual decision? Today, I asked S&P for some of those details. Who sits on the panel? How many people are there? What are their backgrounds? What is their record of accuracy? Did they all agree a downgrade was the right move? We tried to contact the analyst who covers us. But no details are forthcoming. Nada. All of which makes me think about S&P's track record. That's where you begin to have some sympathy for the naysayers.
Thanks to S&P -- and competitors Moody's and Fitch -- many investors held onto their Enron shares till the last minute.
The rating agency only downgraded the energy company days before it went bankrupt. You remember Enron. The company that engineered a massive accounting fraud. Same goes with Worldcom.
And, probably most notably, S&P and other ratings agencies gave subprime mortgage debt investments a clean bill of health until it was way too late. What followed was a stock market route, the longest recession since the great depression -- one we are still crawling out of. It's no wonder some folks call S&P, Moody's and Fitch the three blind mice.
Look, so we fall out of the triple AAA debt club -- it's full of tax havens anyway -- Bermuda, Isle of Man, good credits but not economies that influence the entire world. We have a real economy critical to the entire world, and we can return to the club, especially if this downgrade incents politicians to do the right thing and cut debt. Sometimes the right thing happens for the wrong reasons. This is one of those times.