S&P Got the Big Stuff Right
When I worked for BusinessWeek, I called McGraw-Hill (NYS: MHP) CEO Terry McGraw Uncle Terry. It wasn't just that his name was on the door of BW's parent company, or that McGraw-Hill made money and treated people well. It was also that Terry often babbled like Ross Perot's crazy aunt. He looked loopy -- we all talked about it -- but had good instincts. In both senses of the phrase, he's Uncle Terry.
Welcome to the family, America. I remembered Terry's two sides when Standard & Poor's, McGraw-Hill's biggest business, cut Uncle Sam's credit rating to AA+ from AAA last weekend. From a certain perspective, it was comedy, marred by a $2 trillion miscalculation in a draft report that also had no new information. And as everyone from Warren Buffett to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pointed out, the U.S. can pay its debts.
Still, does anyone think S&P gave bad advice? The report's money quote was:
The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable. ... A new political consensus might (or might not) emerge after the 2012 elections, but ... by then, the government debt burden will likely be higher, the needed medium-term fiscal adjustment potentially greater, and the inflection point on the U.S. population's demographics and other age-related spending drivers closer at hand.
That's completely true.
Many people insist that S&P was wrong because ratings are about whether a borrower will pay, but credit scores are actually about whether you will pay on time and as agreed -- a standard Congress nearly violated.
S&P rightly called that out, especially since Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has promised more budgetary brinksmanship this fall.
So ignore S&P's bond call, but heed its political point. If you considered Treasuries a refuge before, hang tough. But we all have to force change in the Washington clown show, no matter who sported the biggest, reddest shoes. Congress does its dopey intransigence bit because it wins elections.
Listen to S&P the way you'd heed an Uncle Terry who loves you, even if his heart is better than his advice. Find adults who want to be in Congress and give them money. Call their stubborn opponents and calmly explain what you did, and why. And do whatever you did before about Treasuries. Uncle Terry will get over it.
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