By Don Miller
The United Kingdom's mounting pile of government IOUs toppled it from the list of countries holding the highest-rated credit today (Thursday), which resulted inlowering its outlook on the United Kingdom's debt to "negative" from "stable."
The downgrade has both financial and political ramifications. It is sure to increase the country's cost of borrowing and may even boost the out-of-favor Conservative Party to victory in the next election, which may come as early as next year.
Even though the agency reaffirmed its 'AAA' long-term and 'A-1+' short-term credit ratings for the United Kingdom, the downgrade may be cause for alarm among its debt holders and citizens.
"We have revised the outlook on the U.K. to negative due to our view that, even assuming additional fiscal tightening, the net general government debt burden could approach 100% of GDP and remain near that level in the medium term," Standard & Poor's credit analyst David Beers said in a statement, according to Reuters.
S&P questions the government's stance regarding "how quickly the erosion in the government's revenue base may be repaired, the extent to which the growth in government spending can be curtailed, and consequently the pace at which historically high fiscal deficits are likely to narrow," Beers said in the statement.
Just minutes before S&P announced the ratings cut, the government released figures that revealed the budget deficit hit $13.4 billion (8.5 billion pounds) in April, the most for that month since records began.
Government bond futures, British share prices and the pound fell sharply after the S&P announcement.
Britain's finance minister Alistair Darling said the economic future is still not clear and S&P could reverse itself if the United Kingdom is able to make significant progress towards reducing its budget deficit to its stated goal of $276 billion (175 billion pounds) this year.
The government has launched a program of quantitative easing to buy a record $340 billion (220 billion pounds) in government bonds, which has ballooned the deficit. Some analysts have criticized the program and characterized government projections that deficits would shrink in the future and spark economic growth as unrealistic.
But the government is holding to its view.
"There are significant uncertainties in the global economy at the present time and S&P point out that the outlook could be revised back to stable 'if fiscal outturns are more benign than (they) currently anticipate'," a Treasury spokesman said, according to Reuters.
"The Budget set out a clear plan to halve the deficit in five years. That judgment was based on a deliberately cautious view of the public finances," the Treasury added.
S&P said Britain's high debt ratings were supported by its wealthy, diversified economy, fiscal and monetary policy flexibility, and relatively flexible product and labor markets, Reuters reported.
But in an ominous warning, S&P said that it would consider lowering the U.K.'s top-tier AAA debt rating if the next Government does not take radical measures to reduce the scale of public debt, according to the Daily Telegraph.
"The rating could be lowered if we conclude that, following the election, the next Government's fiscal consolidation plans are unlikely to put the U.K. debt burden on a secure downward trajectory," Beers said.
The specter of a divisive election - now likely in 2010 - is raising political uncertainty about how government policy may affect fiscal matters in the future.
Analysts were unsure if fallout from the economic crisis could convince voters to change parties in order to deal with the deteriorating debt situation. But S&P's downgrade is sure to bear on the minds of the victorious party.
"Whoever wins the next election, tax hikes and sharp spending cuts will be the order of the day - but today's announcement by S&P puts that much more pressure on the next government to act quickly," Colin Ellis of Daiwa Securities Group Inc. told Reuters.
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