In an otherwise boring day, when Theresa May failed to cause any major ripples with her much anticipated Brexit speech, moments ago it was Moody’s turn to stop out countless cable longs, when shortly after the US close, it downgraded the UK from Aa1 to Aa2, outlook stable, causing yet another flash crash in the pound.
As reason for the unexpected downgrade, Moodys cited “the outlook for the UK’s public finances has weakened significantly since the negative outlook on the Aa1 rating was assigned, with the government’s fiscal consolidation plans increasingly in question and the debt burden expected to continue to rise.”
It also said that fiscal pressures will be exacerbated by the erosion of the UK’s medium-term economic strength that is likely to result from the manner of its departure from the European Union (EU), and by the increasingly apparent challenges to policy-making given the complexity of Brexit negotiations and associated domestic political dynamics.
Moody’s now expects growth of just 1% in 2018 following 1.5% this year; doesn’t expect growth to recover to its historic trend rate over coming years. Expects public debt ratio to increase to close to 90% of GDP this year and to reach its peak at close to 93% of GDP only in 2019.
And so, once again, it was poor sterling longs who having gotten through today largely unscathed, were unceremoniously stopped out following yet another flash crash in all GBP pairs.
Full release below:
Moody’s Investors Service, (“Moody’s”) has today downgraded the United Kingdom’s long-term issuer rating to Aa2 from Aa1 and changed the outlook to stable from negative. The UK’s senior unsecured bond rating was also downgraded to Aa2 from Aa1.
The key drivers for the decision to downgrade the UK’s ratings to Aa2 are as follows:
- 1. The outlook for the UK’s public finances has weakened significantly since the negative outlook on the Aa1 rating was assigned, with the government’s fiscal consolidation plans increasingly in question and the debt burden expected to continue to rise;
- 2. Fiscal pressures will be exacerbated by the erosion of the UK’s medium-term economic strength that is likely to result from the manner of its departure from the European Union (EU), and by the increasingly apparent challenges to policy-making given the complexity of Brexit negotiations and associated domestic political dynamics.
Concurrently, Moody’s has also downgraded to Aa2 the Bank of England’s issuer and senior unsecured bond ratings from Aa1. The rating on its senior unsecured medium-term note (MTN) program was downgraded to (P)Aa2 from (P)Aa1. The short-term issuer ratings were affirmed at Prime-1. The ratings outlook was also changed to stable from negative.
The foreign and local currency bond ceilings and the local-currency deposit ceiling remain unchanged at Aaa/P-1. The foreign-currency long-term deposit ceiling was lowered to Aa2 from Aaa, and the short-term deposit ceilings remain P-1.
RATIONALE FOR THE DOWNGRADE TO Aa2
FIRST DRIVER: WEAKENING PUBLIC FINANCES WITH HIGHER BUDGET DEFICITS IN THE COMING YEARS AMID PRESSURE TO RAISE SPENDING
Moody’s expects weaker public finances going forward, partly linked to the economic slowdown under way but also reflecting the increasing political and social pressures to raise spending after seven years of spending cuts. Since 2015, the government has been finding it increasingly difficult to implement the spending cuts that it has been targeting, in particular on welfare spending. More recently, the government has yielded to pressure and raised spending in several areas, including for health and adult social care. It also agreed to above-budget pay increases for some public sector workers. While these additional expenditures will be funded out of current budgets, the pressure to continue to increase spending in the coming years is likely to remain high, in particular on health care and the public sector wage bill.
In addition, in order to secure a working parliamentary majority, the new government agreed a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement that increases public spending by GBP1 billion for Northern Ireland. It also abandoned a pre-election promise to review the costly so-called “triple lock” on state pensions after 2020. Overall, Moody’s expects spending to be significantly higher than under the government’s current budgetary plans and higher than the rating agency expected when the negative outlook was assigned in June 2016.
At the same time, revenues are unlikely to compensate for higher spending. Earlier this year, the government abandoned a planned increase in national insurance contributions for the self-employed. Instead, the government has become reliant on highly uncertain revenue gains from tackling tax avoidance to fund tax cuts, as the Office for Budget Responsibility recently pointed out. Hence, while last year’s general government budget deficit turned out somewhat lower than expected (3.0% of GDP on a calendar year basis), Moody’s expects the (general government) budget deficit to remain at levels of 3-3.5% of GDP in the coming years, against the government’s plan of a gradual reduction to below 1% of GDP by 2021/22.
The UK’s broader fiscal framework — previously one of the strengths of the sovereign’s credit profile — has also weakened in recent years as illustrated by repeated revisions to medium-term fiscal targets and delays in reversing the rising debt trend. In contrast to the government’s earlier plans to have public sector net borrowing in surplus by 2019-20, the current objective is for the structural deficit to be below 2% by 2020-21; and the supplementary objective of having net debt as a percentage of GDP decline every year has been delayed to 2020-21 (from 2015-16 before). While these targets may be more realistic, the changes signal weaker predictability.
Weaker public finances will imply a further delay in reversing the rising public debt ratio. This places the UK among the few highly-rated European sovereigns where the public debt ratio continues to rise. Moody’s expects the ratio to increase to close to 90% of GDP this year and to reach its peak at close to 93% of GDP only in 2019, two years later than the latest government plans. Moreover, while the UK government benefits from one of the longest average maturities of its debt stock among advanced economies, the cost of the debt is comparatively high with Moody’s preferred metric — interest payments as a share of government revenues — at 6.3% compared to a ratio of around 3.6% for most other Aa2-rated peers.
SECOND DRIVER: EROSION OF ECONOMIC STRENGTH AS A RESULT OF EU EXIT DECISION AND INCREASING CHALLENGES TO POLICYMAKING
Moody’s believes that the UK government’s decision to leave the EU Single Market and customs union as of 29 March 2019 will be negative for the country’s medium-term economic growth prospects. Aside from the direct impact on the UK’s credit profile, the loss of economic strength will further exacerbate pressures on fiscal consolidation.
Growth has slowed in recent months, with average quarterly growth of just 0.26% in the first two quarters, versus an average of 0.6% over the 2014-2016 period. Private consumption has slowed sharply and business investment has been weak since 2016, most likely linked to the Brexit-related uncertainty. While future years may see some recovery, Moody’s expects growth of just 1% in 2018 following 1.5% this year and 2.25% on average in recent years.
More importantly for the UK’s credit profile, Moody’s does not expect growth to recover to its historic trend rate over the coming years. The UK is a relatively open economy, and the EU is by far its largest trading partner. Research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) suggests that leaving the Single Market will result in substantially lower trade in goods and services with the EU. In a similar vein, both the NIESR and the Bank of England estimate that private investment will be materially lower in the coming years than in a non-Brexit scenario.
Moody’s is no longer confident that the UK government will be able to secure a replacement free trade agreement with the EU which substantially mitigates the negative economic impact of Brexit. While the government seeks a “deep and comprehensive free trade agreement” with the EU, even such a best-case scenario would not award the same access to the EU Single Market that the UK currently enjoys. It would likely impose additional costs, raise the regulatory and administrative burden on UK businesses and put at risk the close-knit supply chains that link the UK and the EU. Also, free trade arrangements do not as a standard cover trade in services — which account for close to 40% of the UK’s exports to the EU and 80% of Gross Value Added in the economy — given the prevalence of non-tariff trade restrictions and the need to align regulations and standards. In Moody’s view, the differences of outlook between the UK and the EU suggest that the most likely outcome is now a rather more limited free trade agreement which may exclude services: the UK’s desire to pursue its own regulatory policies and to avoid the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will make finding an agreement on services challenging. Moreover, any free trade agreement will likely take years to negotiate, prolonging the current uncertainty for businesses.
Aside from the direct impact on the UK’s credit profile, weakening growth prospects are likely to exacerbate the government’s evident fiscal challenges. And this is likely to be happening during a period in which policymakers will be increasingly distracted by the twin challenges of sustaining a domestic political consensus on how to operationalise Brexit and reaching agreement with EU counterparts.
Brexit carries with it a heavy policy and legislative agenda which will dominate policymaking in the years to come. In addition to ensuring a smooth exit from the EU, the UK authorities aim for significant changes to the UK’s immigration policy, its broader trade policies as well as regulatory policies. With Brexit dominating the government’s legislative priorities for the coming years, there is likely to be limited political capital and civil service capacity to address other challenges relating to the UK’s growth potential and weak productivity growth. While Moody’s continues to assess the UK’s institutional strength to be very high, the challenges for policymakers and officials are substantial and rising. The recent loss of the UK government’s parliamentary majority further obscures the future direction of economic policy.
RATIONALE FOR STABLE OUTLOOK
The fiscal deterioration that Moody’s expects is balanced by the UK’s continued economic and institutional strengths, that compare well to peers at the Aa2 rating level. While the ongoing Brexit negotiations introduce a high level of uncertainty over the economic outlook for the UK, Moody’s base case remains that some form of a free trade agreement is in the interest of both sides and will ultimately be agreed. Such a scenario would mitigate the negative economic implications of the UK’s departure from the EU to some extent.
In that context, Moody’s notes that the UK government may be softening its negotiating stance in a number of areas, including on the European Court of Justice, on continuing budget contributions in the transition phase and most importantly on the need for a transitional agreement beyond March 2019 to limit the disruption to trade following the UK’s exit.
WHAT COULD CHANGE THE RATING UP/DOWN
The combination of eroding fiscal and economic strength which drove today’s action implies limited upside to the rating following the downgrade. Over the longer term, a more rapid and sustained recovery in fiscal strength, together with evidence that the economic impact of Brexit is less material than Moody’s currently estimates would be positive for the rating.
The rating would come under further downward pressure if Moody’s concluded that public finances were likely to weaken further than Moody’s currently expects. It would also be under pressure if Moody’s concluded that the economic impact of the decision to exit the EU would be more severe than Moody’s currently expects, perhaps because the negotiations with the EU failed to secure an effective transition agreement that would allow for an orderly transition to new trade arrangements.