14 January 2009

Risk rising for U.S., other nations' ratings - S&P

By Walden Siew

NEW YORK, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Standard & Poor's on Tuesday affirmed its "AAA" rating for the United States but said risks to the country's top sovereign grade have increased since the financial crisis deepened in September.

The ballooning costs of rescuing U.S. banks and auto companies, combined with an expected near-$1 trillion stimulus plan by President-elect Barack Obama, "will lead to noticeable deterioration in the U.S. fiscal profile," S&P said.

The Obama administration needs to "flesh out a medium-term strategy," David Beers, S&P's global head of sovereign ratings, said on a conference call. "There are a lot of unanswered questions."

The action was part of a broader review of 20 highly rated sovereign nations that resulted in affirmations for 12 "AAA" nations, including Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

S&P also affirmed its ratings for Belgium, Japan and Italy, while saying downgrades of investment-grade nations may be possible for New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

Rating firms are under fire for having given high ratings to home loans and complex bond packages that later plummeted in value and led to the collapse of the U.S. subprime mortgage market and so to the global financial crisis.

S&P, Moody's Investors Service and Fitch Ratings were "so wrong with subprime and structured finance," said Edward Grebeck, chief executive officer at Tempus Advisors in Stamford, Connecticut. "It's possible it's playing out with sovereigns now."

Two callers on S&P's call, including a JPMorgan Chase & Co analyst and an investor, questioned S&P's top rating for the United States.

"If the current situation isn't reason to look again at these triple-A ratings, what circumstances in the international arena would make you look at them again?" one caller said.


The key will be the credit spreads of the countries, said Grebeck. "If you start to see the credit spreads out of line, that's evidence the ratings are out of line with reality."

The yield premium that most euro zone government bonds offer over German Bunds soared on Tuesday to record levels.

Ten-year Portuguese, French, Belgian, Greek, Spanish and Dutch bonds yielded the most over Bunds since at least 1999, when the euro was created, according to Reuters charts. For more see: ID:nLD484937.

The cost of protecting U.S. debt for five years fell to about 55 basis points on Tuesday, or $55,000 a year to protect $10 million of debt, from about 56 basis points late Monday, according to CMA DataVision.

S&P said U.S. strengths include one of the most flexible economies of any nation and the fact the U.S. dollar is one of the world's most used currencies.

Still, with net external debt at an estimated 240 percent of current account receipts, the United States remains vulnerable to any shift in international investors' willingness to buy dollar-denominated assets, S&P said.

S&P analyst John Chambers told Reuters in September that pressure was building on the U.S. "AAA" rating after the $85 billion bailout of insurer American International Group Inc.

Since then, the U.S. government has spent another $40 billion propping up AIG, $20 billion to bail out Citigroup and $19.4 billion to aid the auto industry.

S&P is expecting the U.S. general government deficit will double in 2009 from 5 percent of gross domestic product in fiscal year 2008.

A growing deficit will be the result of softening revenue sources and the incoming Obama administration's 2009 fiscal stimulus package, which S&P expects will approach $1 trillion, or 7 percent of GDP, a trend playing out globally.

Germany on Tuesday presented a 50 billion euro ($67 billion) stimulus package. [ID:nSP378771].

S&P said in a "reasonable worst-case scenario," U.S. net general government debt could rise from its 2008 level of 42 percent of GDP to as much as 75 percent by 2011, combining the costs of bailouts and stimulus with the fall-off in revenue.

Still, "I can't see them ever doing anything to the U.S. 'AAA' ratings because the U.S. dollar is the fundamental reserve currency in the world. Relative to other sovereigns, the U.S. is the best credit in the world" and deserving of its high rating for now, said Tempus' Grebeck.

But he added: "What we're seeing is cracks are beginning to show." (Additional reporting by Emelia Sithole-Matarise in London; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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