Monday, August 8, 2011

Just the Facts: S&P's $2 Trillion Mistake

In a document provided to Treasury on Friday afternoon, Standard and Poor’s (S&P) presented a judgment about the credit rating of the U.S. that was based on a $2 trillion mistake. After Treasury pointed out this error – a basic math error of significant consequence – S&P still chose to proceed with their flawed judgment by simply changing their principal rationale for their credit rating decision from an economic one to a political one.

S&P has said their decision to downgrade the U.S. was based in part on the fact that the Budget Control Act, which will reduce projected deficits by more than $2 trillion over the next 10 years, fell short of their $4 trillion expectation for deficit reduction. Clearly, in that context, S&P considers a $2 trillion change to projected deficits to be very significant. Yet, although S&P's math error understated the deficit reduction in the Budget Control Act by $2 trillion, they found this same sum insignificant in this instance.

In fact, S&P’s $2 trillion mistake led to a very misleading picture of debt sustainability – the foundation for their initial judgment. This mistake undermined the economic justification for S&P’s credit rating decision. Yet after acknowledging their mistake, S&P simply removed a prominent discussion of the economic justification from their document.

In their initial, incorrect estimates, S&P projected that the debt as a share of GDP would rise rapidly through the middle of the decade, and they cited this as a primary reason for a downgrade.

In S&P’s corrected estimates – which lowered S&P's projection of future deficits by $2 trillion over 10 years and lowered S&P's estimate of debt as a share of GDP in 2021 by 8 percentage points - public debt is much more stable.