Articles - Moody's downgrades UK to AA1


 Moody's Investors Service has downgraded the domestic- and foreign-currency government bond ratings of the United Kingdom by one notch to AA1 from AAA. The outlook on the ratings is now stable.

 The key interrelated drivers of today's action are:

 1. The continuing weakness in the UK's medium-term growth outlook, with a period of sluggish growth which Moody's now expects will extend into the second half of the decade;

 2. The challenges that subdued medium-term growth prospects pose to the government's fiscal consolidation programme, which will now extend well into the next parliament;

 3. And, as a consequence of the UK's high and rising debt burden, a deterioration in the shock-absorption capacity of the government's balance sheet, which is unlikely to reverse before 2016.

 At the same time, Moody's explains that the UK's creditworthiness remains extremely high, rated at Aa1, because of the country's significant credit strengths. These include (i) a highly competitive, well-diversified economy; (ii) a strong track record of fiscal consolidation and a robust institutional structure; and (iii) a favourable debt structure, with supportive domestic demand for government debt, the longest average maturity structure (15 years) among all highly rated sovereigns globally and the resulting reduced interest rate risk on UK debt.

 The stable outlook on the UK's Aa1 sovereign rating reflects Moody's expectation that a combination of political will and medium-term fundamental underlying economic strengths will, in time, allow the government to implement its fiscal consolidation plan and reverse the UK's debt trajectory. Moreover, although the UK's economy has considerable risk exposure through trade and financial linkages to a potential escalation in the euro area sovereign debt crisis, its contagion risk is mitigated by the flexibility afforded by the UK's independent monetary policy framework and sterling's global reserve currency status.

 In a related rating action, Moody's has today also downgraded the ratings of the Bank of England to Aa1 from Aaa. The issuer's P-1 rating is unaffected by this rating action. The rating outlook for this entity is now also stable.

 RATINGS RATIONALE

 The main driver underpinning Moody's decision to downgrade the UK's government bond rating to Aa1 is the increasing clarity that, despite considerable structural economic strengths, the UK's economic growth will remain sluggish over the next few years due to the anticipated slow growth of the global economy and the drag on the UK economy from the ongoing domestic public- and private-sector deleveraging process. Moody's says that the country's current economic recovery has already proven to be significantly slower -- and believes that it will likely remain so -- compared with the recovery observed after previous recessions, such as those of the 1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s. Moreover, while the government's recent Funding for Lending Scheme has the potential to support a surge in growth, Moody's believes the risks to the growth outlook remain skewed to the downside.

 The sluggish growth environment in turn poses an increasing challenge to the government's fiscal consolidation efforts, which represents the second driver informing Moody's one-notch downgrade of the UK's sovereign rating. When Moody's changed the outlook on the UK's rating to negative in February 2012, the rating agency cited concerns over the increased uncertainty regarding the pace of fiscal consolidation due to materially weaker growth prospects, which contributed to higher than previously expected projections for the deficit, and consequently also an expected rise in the debt burden. Moody's now expects that the UK's gross general government debt level will peak at just over 96% of GDP in 2016. The rating agency says that it would have expected it to peak at a higher level if the government had not reduced its debt stock by transferring funds from the Asset Purchase Facility -- which will equal to roughly 3.7% of GDP in total -- as announced in November 2012.

 More specifically, projected tax revenue increases have been difficult to achieve in the UK due to the challenging economic environment. As a result, the weaker economic outturn has substantially slowed the anticipated pace of deficit and debt-to-GDP reduction, and is likely to continue to do so over the medium term. After it was elected in 2010, the government outlined a fiscal consolidation programme that would run through this parliament's five-year term and place the net public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio on a declining trajectory by the 2015-16 financial year. (Although it was not one of the government's targets, Moody's had expected the UK's gross general government debt -- a key debt metric in the rating agency's analysis -- to start declining in the 2014-15 financial year.) Now, however, the government has announced that fiscal consolidation will extend into the next parliament, which necessarily makes their implementation less certain.

 Taken together, the slower-than-expected recovery, the higher debt load and the policy uncertainties combine to form the third driver of today's rating action -- namely, the erosion of the shock-absorption capacity of the UK's balance sheet. Moody's believes that the mounting debt levels in a low-growth environment have impaired the sovereign's ability to contain and quickly reverse the impact of adverse economic or financial shocks. For example, given the pace of deficit and debt reduction that Moody's has observed since 2010, there is a risk that the UK government may not be able to reverse the debt trajectory before the next economic shock or cyclical downturn in the economy.

 In summary, although the UK's debt-servicing capacity remains very strong and very capable of withstanding further adverse economic and financial shocks, it does not at present possess the extraordinary resilience common to other Aaa-rated issuers.

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