S&P lowered USA's credit rating from AAA (cool) to AA+ (a bit less cool). Suddenly, I hear about it everywhere: shares prices are down, oil prices change, news digests say "the new financial crisis is approaching."

I don't get it. Yes, the credit rating was lowered by one agency. It was changed exactly one step down. Not to some B+ level, just to AA+ level. Yes, it is important, but I don't see why it is so extremely important.

Why so much noise? Why all the news about the lower credit rating?

  • What does the community think? Is this on topic for personal finance and money? Why or why not?
    – Alex B
    Commented Aug 8, 2011 at 14:20
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    It's a macro issue with immediate and obvious impact on the individual investor. On-topic in my mind. Commented Aug 8, 2011 at 14:57
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    @Alex B: Well, according to news, it's gonna be very bad for just about everyone, so me as a person who wants to just live decent lifestyle is really interested in knowing what's really going on.
    – sharptooth
    Commented Aug 8, 2011 at 15:03
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    Replace "USA" with "UK" and move the date back about 100 years, is history repeating it's self?
    – Ian
    Commented Aug 8, 2011 at 16:19
  • I don't know, was the UK on a gold standard at that time? Commented Aug 9, 2011 at 12:49

5 Answers 5


Because US bonds have had the prior impression of absolute invincibility and safety that has helped the dollar become the world's reserve currency and the United States borrow essentially at will.

For the people that care what S&P says, the aura of invincibility is broken and it is conceivable, in SOME universe, for the US to default on its debt. This is of little practical importance on its own, but it's yet another signpost on the road to Chinese or European economic hegemony.

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    Well, China is closing in on big inflation, and could not survive w/o the US people buying all their exports. Europe is facing bigger problems then the US, so we still have some time til one of them overtakes America. Commented Aug 9, 2011 at 12:50

Pension- and many "low-risk" investment funds may only invest in AAA-rated stocks and bonds. While the S&P rating alone doesn't imply that such funds must immediately disinvest in US bonds (Fitch and Moody's are holding), it does create the risk that the other rating agencies will follow suite and also lower the US rating.

As the largest issuer of bonds, controller of the world's reserve currency, and with many emerging markets placing almost all their current account surpluses in US bonds, this risk change has implications everywhere.

Some companies will already start disinvestment while some investors will start demanding higher interest returns in order to buy US bonds. It isn't yet a stampede, but the gates are now open.

That said, S&P is simply reflecting the opinions of bond traders. Markets were already unstable long before the downrating. However, from the US perspective, it is a timely reminder to politicians that the global balance is shifting and that the US cannot count on incumbency to protect it from the disapproval of financial analysts.

  • No, no stampede. In fact, rates for bonds went down after the news. B/c in general, investors don't care about S&P, they know they have no credibility (the AAA rating for banks that had the toxic assets was a clue). Commented Aug 9, 2011 at 12:53

Dollar is the lingua franca of the financial industry and unluckily it is the US currency. It is till today considered the most safest investment bet, that is why you have China possesing $3 trillion of US debt, as an investment albiet a very safe one. Financial investors get in queue to by US bonds the moment they are put up for sale. Because of the AAA rating the investors consider it to be safe at a specific rate.

Now when you lower the credit rating you are indirectly asking the US government that you want a higher return(yield) on your investments. When you ask for higher yields, it translates into higher interest rates (money US would get for bonds issued decreases and so more bonds are issued). So you basically start looking at a slowdown in consumer spendings households and businesses. With already defaults, repossesions and lesser spending, the slowdown would increase manifold.


The credit scale is deceptive, it goes: AAA, AA, A, BBB, BBB-, BB+, BB, B, CCC, CC, C, D. In reality it should be A,B,C,D,E, F, G,H, I, etc. The current scale does not reflect with clarity the ranking of risks and ratings. AA is much worse than AAA, but the uncertainty involved can be scary.

Check out these corporate and sovereign debt credit ratings.


Because the USA is the world's biggest economy - everybody in the world works with the USA (even if the american companies are not direct suppliers, they are surely somewhere in the supply chain). If USA credit rating is lower, that means american companies will find it harder to get loans to finance their business (i.e. the price of capital will be higher), and this will consequently lead to higher prices for partners of american companies, etc. This will certainly lead to slowdown of global economy.

Plus, the lower credit rating also means that the USA govt. is less likely to pay off the debts (Chinese already stated they will diversify their bonds portfolio -i.e. they will start selling out american govt. bonds). This will lead to cuts in public sector in USA, less spending by the consumers, also probably less import from abroad and less travel which will affect - you get it - the "RoW".

It's not by chance we have a saying in Europe, when USA sneezes, the rest of the world catches a flu!

  • It is only the opinion of the S&P rating agency that the US will be more likely to default. While China is dumping, other countries that have substantial holdings are not.
    – MrChrister
    Commented Aug 8, 2011 at 15:41
  • "Because the USA is the world's biggest economy", but for how long given the Chinese and the US dept problems? The fact I can even ask this quesion shows the problem.
    – Ian
    Commented Aug 8, 2011 at 16:18

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