Exclusive: Lawmakers unfazed by downgrade risk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A growing number of lawmakers do not think another downgrade of the country's AAA rating will harm America's economy, raising questions about how much pressure Congress is under to fix the intractable budget deficit.
Analysts warn, however, that signs of complacency on Capitol Hill threaten efforts to cure America's long-term fiscal health.
Bond markets defied predictions of a jump in borrowing costs since August when Standard & Poors downgraded the country's AAA credit rating, after the debt ceiling crisis.
Tim Ryan, a Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said there was broad sentiment in Congress that the U.S. economy would not necessarily suffer from a downgrade by the other two big agencies -- Fitch and Moody's -- that still rate U.S. debt as AAA.
Ryan cited the role of the three major agencies in the buildup to the 2008 financial collapse, when they gave AAA ratings to the toxic mortgage-backed securities at the heart of the crisis.
Since then, Ryan said, "the credit rating agencies have lost a tremendous amount of credibility. The U.S. is still the safest investment to make" -- meaning another downgrade may have little influence how investors view U.S. debt.
When it comes to fixing the economy and sentiment on Capitol Hill, "I don't think the ratings agencies' analysis is the major issue," Ryan told Reuters.
A bipartisan congressional "super committee" is tasked with finding ways to cut the budget deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years by November 23. If it gridlocks, across-the-board spending cuts of $1.2 trillion are due to begin in 2013. However, some analysts say they could yet be undone by a new Congress elected next year.
It is unclear how most members of the deficit-cutting committee feel about the risk of another downgrade. But even if they reach a deal it must be passed by the full Congress, too.
Congressman Michael Grimm, a Republican, told Reuters: "There's no question that when the sky didn't crash after the first downgrade, it has been easy for some members to become complacent and to say we can absorb another downgrade.
"There have been some that think we can absorb another one and they hide behind the fact that the credibility of the ratings agencies has been called into question.
"I think that's dangerous because by doing that you are not accepting the gravity of the debt."
Ratings agencies analysts have said they are watching closely for signs that U.S. politicians can come to grips with the country's fiscal mess.
Stephen Hess, Moody's lead analyst for the United States, said an immediate downgrade is unlikely even if the super committee flopped.
"That would be negative information but it is not decisive in our view about the rating," Hess told Reuters.
Moody's wants to look at other factors in the coming year, such as the result of the presidential election, the next annual budget, the overall economy and whether any of the Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of 2012, he said.
FEAR FACTOR DIMINISHES
"The reaction to the S&P downgrade has reduced the fear factor on Capitol Hill," said Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which has been urging lawmakers to come up with a broad deficit-reduction plan.
Bell, who supported the S&P downgrade because he thought it would galvanize Congress to deal with deficits, said he had spoken recently with half-a-dozen senior congressional staff members from both parties.
"I was surprised by the nonchalance" to the prospect of another downgrade, Bell said. "The attitude on the Hill is, 'Treasuries are the safest place to put money at the moment, because look what happened after the S&P downgrade.' It is the worst possible outcome from the debt limit crisis."
S&P's downgrade in August seems to have encouraged investors to buy more U.S. Treasury bonds -- yields are now lower than before the downgrade -- but it triggered big losses on the U.S. stock market and was followed by a resurgence in concern about the debt crisis in the euro zone.
Many analysts believe that the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts at the end of 2012 may be the only true galvanizing force on Congress to reach a deficit-reduction deal.
If Republicans want to keep some or all of those tax cuts, they may finally be forced to agree to Democratic demands for revenue increases -- which Republicans have so far resisted -- as part of a deal to pay down the U.S. national debt.
G. William Hoagland, a former Capitol Hill veteran who served as staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, said another U.S. downgrade could further hurt Europe's economy, in turn posing a risk to the fragile U.S. recovery.
"The nature of the global economy dictates that actions we take in the U.S. have ramifications far beyond our domestic borders. It would be a mistake for the legislators and decision-makers to not take into consideration that those global impacts will come back to haunt our economy also."
William Galston, once a policy adviser to former president Bill Clinton, said complacency over a downgrade "can only further diminish the pressure to reach a deal here and now."
Senator Rob Portman, a Republican on the super committee, said the reaction of the ratings agencies to the panel's work "should be a serious concern to all policymakers."
Yet Portman also noted that the United States continued to attract investors despite the S&P downgrade.
"Someone told me recently ...'The cleanest of the dirty shirts is the United States,'" he told Reuters. "If you look in your closet and say, 'Which shirt should I wear today,'" the United States wins out."
(Reporting by Tim Reid, Editing Paul Simao and Chris Wilson)
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