Triple-A confusion – what’s in a credit rating?

When the UK lost its triple A credit rating back in February, there were varying degrees of reaction from traders and economists, from gravely concerned to not bothered one iota, as most people recognised that things hadn’t improved substantially in the UK (or global) economy to merit the same level of optimism that was justifiable pre-crunch.

Subsequently, only two G7 countries in the world still have Triple-A ratings; Canada and Germany, and as recent data shows, their immediate prospects are far from wonderful.

Germany has just posted figures suggesting its economy is reaching stagnation while Canadians have grown their percentage of household debt versus income to a level now above the US and UK.

It brings into context the value of third party ratings in a much-changed environment. As Standard & Poor’s finds itself in the middle of a court case in the US for awarding toxic loans triple-A scores in the run up to the credit crunch it’s clear there is a credibility issue with these agencies.

With most other aspects of the financial system going through necessary change, it makes sense for there be a changing of the guard in the credit ratings market. Public perception of banks is still at a record low, and by their association with the excess and irregularities of speculation, credit rating agencies should suffer the same scrutiny.

Peer-to-peer and peer-to-business lending relies on the diligence of the crowd, all of whom have an agenda that compels them to view borrowers objectively because their money is on the line. We believe there is value in this impartiality that could be replicated in the assessment of a nation’s ability to service its debts – albeit at a slightly more sophisticated level.

Fundamentally, when the business model of an ‘impartial’ third party (a ratings agency) compels it to charge a fee to one side, that impartiality is compromised.

When the world is seemingly crying out for a core change in banking to avoid a repeat of the credit crunch, credit ratings agencies must surely be part of that change.

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