David Walker, former US Comptroller General, says he's not surprised that Standard and Poor's downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time in history.
In the midst of the 2008-09 global financial crisis, two influential companies squirmed out of the spotlight that rightfully should have been trained right on them.
Moody's and Standard & Poor's, two private financial firms paid by sellers and buyers to rate other financial firms, have for decades made billions of dollars out of the practice.
Yet the core group of companies that these agencies rated so highly were the very ones that triggered the biggest crash since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"Standard & Poor's, despite its tarnished reputation, has downgraded the very government that struggled so hard to clean up the mess the ratings agencies created in the first place." Photo: AFP
These were the Wall Street investment banks peddling so-called sub-prime housing loans and the complex derivative financial products surrounding them.
Now one of these ratings agencies, Standard & Poor's, despite its tarnished reputation, has downgraded the very government that struggled so hard to clean up the mess the ratings agencies created in the first place.
During the weekend, S&P has announced it will downgrade the US government debt (Treasury bonds) below AAA, arguing that it was dissatisfied that the President and Congress had agreed only to cut $US2 trillion ($1.9 trillion) out of US government programs like pensions and Medicaid, and not the $US4 trillion ''that S&P (and the Tea Party ''patriots'') had been demanding.
One good may emerge from this piece of nonsense.
It might just, finally, blow the whistle on the methodologies and political nature of the actions of these ratings agencies: in much the same way as Rupert Murdoch's News of the World scandal is likely to lift the veil on the methodologies that have led to Murdoch's overweening influence in politics around the world.
If investors are able to shrug off what seems little more than a PR stunt by one of the agencies - remembering that Moody's and other ratings agencies such as Fitch have retained their top ratings for US bonds - sanity might return to the debate about the state of the international economy.
There's no doubt that these are tough times.
Europe and the US are both wrestling with the reverberations of the GFC as the various governments on either side of the Atlantic confront the reality that throughout 2008 and 2009 they were obliged to bail out the privately run financial miscreants with massive injections of taxpayer moneys, just to prevent a complete meltdown of the global financial system. It has been a close-run thing, and the latest aftershocks are an indicator that we have further to go.
Our two organisations, the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees and the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, represent about $450 billion of moneys held in trust by not-for-profit super funds in Australia.
The super system has already amassed a staggering $1.3 trillion pool of patient capital which acted during the past two or three years of the GFC to stabilise our economy, and it is projected to grow to $4 trillion by 2025.
While we're concerned at any dilution of the values of the portfolios we manage on behalf of 10 million Australian workers and their families, we're also long-term investors who aren't easily spooked by a set of bad headlines or a silly stunt by a ratings agency.
Two decades ago, when I was editor of The Australian Financial Review, we went through the aftermath of the 1987 stock market crash and the 1991-93 ''recession we had to have'' in its wake.
At the time, it seemed like the end of the world as we knew it, with headlines every bit as alarmist as the ones which have appeared over the past week or two. [With hindsight, I regret I was perhaps responsible for a few of them.] Yet if you look at long-term graphs now, it's sometimes hard to pick out the downward spike on the performance graphs, growing ever smaller as time washes away the importance of that shake to the global financial system.
This time the horizon is difficult to keep in mind when the markets seem in perpetual turmoil, but it is worth musing that our retirement savings system is both world class and designed to accumulate over 40 years of a person's working life, not the latest three or four months.
Gerard Noonan is president of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees and the Australian Council of Super Investors and a former editor of The Australian Financial Review.