Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


Standard & Poor’s issued a warning today that it might downgrade U.S. debt if no deal is made to rein in the deficit. Or, more precisely, it might not downgrade debt, but might declare that America’s AAA rating isn’t quite as good as some other countries’ AAA rating. Or something. In any case, Matt Yglesias says we should ignore them:

The thing about the United States of America is that we’re not an obscure country. Nor is our sovereign debt an obscure financial instrument. No major investor is going to be outsourcing his research on the desirability of American bonds to the S&P ratings service. There are two metrics to keep an eye on when assessing American debt. One is the interest rate the Treasury has to offer to get people to buy the debt. Currently that number is low. The other is the “spread” between bonds that are indexed for inflation and bonds that aren’t indexed for inflation which serves, among other things, as a gauge of market assessment of the risk that we’ll have no choice but to inflate the debt away. Currently that number, too, is low.

I agree with this completely, and I’ve made a similar comment in the past. And yet…..

And yet, there’s something to think about here. One of the reasons I take our medium and long-term deficit fairly seriously, even though current financial indicators suggest the market is unconcerned, is that financial indicators can turn around in a flash. There are limits to how far a big country like the United States can get from fundamentals, but we’re still susceptible to the kinds of mob emotion that power both bubbles and bank runs. And the thing is, there’s never any telling what might spark such a turnaround. One day everything is fine. Then Bill Gross announces that he’s no longer thrilled about holding treasuries. The next day S&P makes some negative noises. A day after that the Chinese government cuts back on treasury purchases. Then an auction of 10-year bonds is slightly soft, and suddenly everyone panics.

This most likely won’t happen. Certainly not anytime soon, given the underlying fundamentals of the American and global economies. Still, it could happen in the near future, and there’s no telling what might set it off. So in that sense, this kind of announcement from S&P actually is meaningful. Maybe not today. But a similar announcement someday might be. It’s true that major investors don’t outsource their opinion on U.S. treasuries to S&P, but even major investors can get nervous if enough people start telling them they’re being idiots. Sometimes perceptions are as important as reality.

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate