European credit ratings: a case of self-fulfilling expectations

Europe is a mess, and one has to wonder why. First, there is no reason that the credit difficulties of Greece should have any consequences on the Euro. I doubt the US Federal Reserve would feel compelled to do anything if a state were to default on its debt, and nobody would claim it should. Why should it be different in Europe? Because politics want it.

To make things worse, the credit rating agencies generate self-fulfilling expectations. These are of a different kind of those that make that Greece will have to default. Witness yesterday's announcement by Moody's while threatening a downgrade of French debt: "Elevated borrowing costs persisting for an extended period would amplify the fiscal challenges the French government faces amid a deteriorating growth outlook, with negative credit implications." In other words, high credit costs would lead to a downgrade and this would lead to even higher credit costs, etc. The rating is not about the intrinsic risk of default (what rating agencies are supposed to measure) but about the expectation of where the rating should, as signaled by the cost of credit. And this after Standard and Poor's downgraded the same debt "by error." The rating agencies are clearly not helping at this point.

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