Do we really need credit rating agencies?

gold bars Image copyright bbc
Image caption The impact of lower US bond yields helped push gold through the $1,700 per ounce barrier

The downgrade of the US government's credit rating has caused consternation in Washington, just as the rating agencies have infuriated European governments over recent months.

So is it time to do away with them? Have we had enough of them annoyingly drawing attention to weakening credit worthiness and spreading gloom?

Perhaps they should go. But not because they're doing their job well.

Perhaps Standard & Poor, Fitch and Moody's have had their day because they're so far behind the markets.

They weren't just behind the markets back in October 2008. They were plain, flat-out wrong about securitised mortgages and lots of other toxic debt, and they've been struggling to regain credibility since then.

They aren't helped by the conflict of interest when those who are having their credit ratings assessed are the very people paying the agencies to do so.

Get tough

Repairing the reputational damage has included the get-tough approach to sovereign debt.

And while the eurozone crisis has been accompanied by downgrades and warnings of downgrades, have they actually changed perceptions that much, or had the bond markets already figured out what they were saying?

The bombshell dropped on Washington by S&P on Friday evening wasn't really much of a shock either.

As we're finding out today, it didn't tell the markets much that they hadn't already figured out. They've continued as they were, in response to fears of growth stalling.

A half-decent financial analyst should be able to figure out where to find the data on which the ratings are based, and to make their own calculations.

But the crucial factor in deciding credit worthiness is whether there is the management capacity and will to repay loans.

Any undergraduate student of American politics could have told you that the management capacity at Washington Politics Inc to agree a budget following last year's Republican breakthrough had significantly diminished.

Reckoning how much of a risk is hardly a pure science, but it's sufficient to say there's a little bit more of a risk of something very unlikely happening.

Safe haven

It may not be quite as clear to an undergraduate or a half-decent financial whizz why this reduced credit worthiness in Washington should lead to bond prices rising, and in turn to interest rates falling.

Yet that's what's happened, flying in the face of the S&P downgrade. And it's been a clear trend in the past month.

The answer seems to be that the value of the safety in US Treasury bonds seems, for now at least, to outweigh the risk that you won't get paid what the bond promises.

And while gold, the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen have been more noteworthy as safe havens in the current economic storm, the USA and the dollar haven't lost their magnetic appeal yet.

Indeed, the eagerness to buy bonds also helps the market for gold. The impact of lower US bond yields, for instance, helped push it through the $1,700 per ounce barrier on Monday.

With poor returns on bonds, gold - which, of course, pays no return at all - becomes relatively more attractive.