Saturday, August 06, 2011

Impact of the US Rating downgrade

The rumours of a downgrade had started during US trading hours, but the actual S&P announcement came post market hours, so Friday's market closing does not reflect the ratings impact.

Immediate impact - is it the last straw?
With concerns on US growth slowdown and EU debt crisis already troubling markets, this is another nail in the coffin. The immediate reaction should be negative: equities sell off, commodities fall, bond yields rally, dollar weakens, safe haven assets (gold, CHF, JPY) appreciate. However, it is not clear if this impact will persist beyond the near term.

On bond yields 
Some are arguing that since it was well known that the US would get downgraded, this is priced in and that there may not be much lasting impact. Moreover, Moody's and Fitch still have the US at AAA for now. Analysis of the impact of past rating downgrade of other countries on their long-term yields has shown that yields rose in the days before the downgrade and then either fell or were unchanged after the actual downgrade.

Over a few years, one can expect yields to trend upwards, till the US regains its AAA ratings. If the situation deteriorates further, there is likely to be sustained uptrend in the bond yields.

Money moving out of US treasuries
The US downgrade raises two medium-term issues with respect to money movement.

First, the downgrade will accelerate the already ongoing trend of reserve diversification away from the US dollar. Confidence in dollar's reserve status will be tested by the markets. This may be a slow moving process or in the worst case scenario, this can trigger panic reaction.

Second, some funds may start taking money out of US as they are mandated to invest in AAA only. However, a lot of funds rely on ratings of two agencies and not just one, so this effect may be more prominent if one other ratings agency follows S&P.

Further, the question remains, where will they invest? None of the other AAA rated countries have the size and liquidity that the US markets offer. Norway, Singapore, Australia, Sweden are some of the AAA rated countries where investors could flock and put pressure on their currencies to appreciate. 

In such a scenario, people expect this money to move in emerging markets through a diversified investment approach. Thus, post the initial risk aversion shock, they expect EM markets to show positive reaction over the medium term. I do not agree with this. There is no reason to trust Indian or other treasuries over US treasuries.

I think people may shift into commodities. Commodities will start acting like stores of value. Thus, we will see an increase in commodity prices. This will adversely impact EM inflation leading to weakness in EM. EM central banks will be forced to revalue their currencies with respect to USD, triggering the realignment process.

In sum
A lot depends on whether beyond the near-term negative reaction, there is further panic or sanity prevails at some point.

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