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Back to El cuco de Moody’s acosa a España

Ricardo Leiva Soto, Professor of Marketing, School of Economic Sciences, University of Navarra, Spain

Moody's boogeyman stalks Spain

Thu, 21 Jul 2011 07:45:41 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

If an economist had been told five years ago that the markets would doubt the ability of the United States or the European Union to pay, the warning would surely have provoked laughter. After all, if the United States and Europe are unable to meet their commitments, what is left for the poorer countries. The unthinkable a few years ago has happened, however, and now the International Monetary Fund is coming to the rescue not only of nations like Argentina, but also of countries with a GDP per capita several times higher, such as Portugal, Greece and Ireland.

One of the bad guys in this unprecedented movie is the questionable rating agency Moody's, which is generating fears throughout the developed world that Freddy Krueger himself would like to cause. Moody's has just sharply downgraded Ireland's and Portugal's debt to grade , and the Irish and Portuguese are now paying interest rates approaching 14%, making their debt virtually unpayable. Spain and Italy are paying some of the price because the interest rate on their bonds now stands at 6%.

All these countries have fallen into a vicious circle from which it is difficult to get out, because Moody's warnings have frightened investors, driving up the interest rate on government bonds and country risk, making it more expensive for governments and companies to finance themselves, resulting in greater anxiety and distrust in the markets, which after a few months eventually produces a new negative action by Moody's and a worsening of the grade of the national debt.

Even the United States is not spared from this downward spiral, as Moody's has just warned the country that it could suffer a similar punishment in the coming months. The United States' triple A rating, Moody's highest rating for national bonds, grade , is currently being reviewed with a negative outlook, which means that in a few weeks there could be an unprecedented catastrophic event: default or default on payments by the planet's greatest power.

It could be argued that Moody's is not to blame for all this gloomy story, but rather the governments that have over-indebted themselves, and that the agency only plays in the economic sphere the unpopular role played by the mythological Cassandra when she announced the imminent fall of Troy and nobody wanted to listen to her pessimistic prophecies. That is irrefutable, no doubt. But so is the fact that Moody's and other market players have performed a somersault in their judgments and analyses that the most seasoned acrobats of the Cirque du Soleil would like to imitate. The case of Spain is paradigmatic in this sense, because until recently Spain's international image was B precisely because of Moody's assessment and other renowned observers such as Deutsche Bank, The Economist or the Financial Times.

Less than two years ago, Moody's said that Spain enjoyed financial, institutional and governmental strength at test of any risk, and that its fiscal position was solid, so the outlook for its triple A grade seemed stable. According to Moody's, Spanish banks would weather the crisis without problems, and the Spanish public deficit would remain under control in the short and medium term deadline. Without even the slightest transition, however, Moody's went from defending Spain's model to bashing it, and so did The Economist and the Financial Times, which, with their indolent British sarcasm, included Spain in the ignoble club of the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain).

If those evaluators are right now, when they undermine Spain's productive capacity and image, then they were flatly wrong yesterday, when they proclaimed to the four winds that Spain represented the happy version of capitalism, and were among the great propagators of the financial bubble.

Without even nuance or the slightest self-criticism, Moody's and its cohorts are now harassing Spain by equating it with the worst boards in the neighborhood. It is possible that in the boom years the Spanish reality may not have been as positive as Moody's, The Economist and Financial Times would have us believe, but if that is true, it should also be accepted that now the status may be less gloomy than the one presented to us by those same raters.

Moody's cyclical judgments should be heeded, whether we like them or not. But its analyses should be greeted with a certain amount of caution and skepticism. The boogeyman has been wrong several times in the past, with disastrous consequences for many market players.