In the middle of the debt-ceiling ‘crisis’ in May, with Fitch, Moodys and DBRS all threatening to do what S&P boldly did in 2011 and downgrade the US should the debt ceiling crisis lead to a technical default, China’s leading rating agency, China Chengxin International Credit Rating decided not to wait, downgrading the USA’s rating by one notch, to AA+ from AAA, citing high inflation and the widely watched debt-ceiling stand-off.
Today, Fitch decided to get off the pot and join S&P and Chengxin, downgrading USA’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to ‘AA+’ from ‘AAA’.
Key Rating Drivers
Ratings Downgrade: The rating downgrade of the United States reflects the expected fiscal deterioration over the next three years, a high and growing general government debt burden, and the erosion of governance relative to ‘AA’ and ‘AAA’ rated peers over the last two decades that has manifested in repeated debt limit standoffs and last-minute resolutions.
Erosion of Governance: In Fitch’s view, there has been a steady deterioration in standards of governance over the last 20 years, including on fiscal and debt matters, notwithstanding the June bipartisan agreement to suspend the debt limit until January 2025. The repeated debt-limit political standoffs and last-minute resolutions have eroded confidence in fiscal management. In addition, the government lacks a medium-term fiscal framework, unlike most peers, and has a complex budgeting process. These factors, along with several economic shocks as well as tax cuts and new spending initiatives, have contributed to successive debt increases over the last decade. Additionally, there has been only limited progress in tackling medium-term challenges related to rising social security and Medicare costs due to an aging population.
Rising General Government Deficits: We expect the general government (GG) deficit to rise to 6.3% of GDP in 2023, from 3.7% in 2022, reflecting cyclically weaker federal revenues, new spending initiatives and a higher interest burden. Additionally, state and local governments are expected to run an overall deficit of 0.6% of GDP this year after running a small surplus of 0.2% of GDP in 2022. Cuts to non-defense discretionary spending (15% of total federal spending) as agreed in the Fiscal Responsibility Act offer only a modest improvement to the medium-term fiscal outlook, with cumulative savings of USD1.5 trillion (3.9% of GDP) by 2033 according to the Congressional Budget Office. The near-term impact of the Act is estimated at USD70 billion (0.3% of GDP) in 2024 and USD112 billion (0.4% of GDP) in 2025. Fitch does not expect any further substantive fiscal consolidation measures ahead of the November 2024 elections.
Fitch forecasts a GG deficit of 6.6% of GDP in 2024 and a further widening to 6.9% of GDP in 2025. The larger deficits will be driven by weak 2024 GDP growth, a higher interest burden and wider state and local government deficits of 1.2% of GDP in 2024-2025 (in line with the historical 20-year average). The interest-to-revenue ratio is expected to reach 10% by 2025 (compared to 2.8% for the ‘AA’ median and 1% for the ‘AAA’ median) due to the higher debt level as well as sustained higher interest rates compared with pre-pandemic levels….