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Standard & Poor’s Tugs on Superman’s Cape

Last December, my friend, beowulf, had this to say at the time Moody’s began to make noises about downgrading US debt. He said:

”I don’t think we’ll see Moody’s or any other rating service based in the US ever downgrade US Treasuries. It would cause a tremendous amount of financial loss and would leave Moody’s and its executives exposed to criminal prosecution. If I were Moody’s general counsel, I’d tell the CEO in no uncertain terms, Do Not Tug On Superman’s Cape.

14th Amendment, Sect. 5

”. . . .the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law… shall not be questioned”

Criminal Mischief statute

18 US 1361. Government property or contracts

“Whoever willfully injures or commits any depredation against any property of the United States, or of any department or agency thereof, or any property which has been or is being manufactured or constructed for the United States, or any department or agency thereof, or attempts to commit any of the foregoing offenses, shall be punished as follows:

If the damage or attempted damage to such property exceeds the sum of $1,000, by a fine under this title or imprisonment for not more than ten years, or both; if the damage or attempted damage to such property does not exceed the sum of $1,000, by a fine under this title or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or both.”

But, Standard & Poor’s has decided to tug on Superman’s cape by downgrading US debt to Double A status for the first time in history. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see S & P executives frog-marched out of their offices and imprisoned for a year for violating the criminal mischief this statute. After their role in the Crash of 2008, that’s the least they should get from an outraged populace. However, I have to say that their action will be of little or no consequence if the Treasury responds correctly to their foolishness.

Contrary to popular belief, and also the apparent belief of this Administration, ratings agencies and the bond market itself don’t actually control the interest rates that Governments like the United States must pay. Sure, they will determine interest rates if the Government sits idly by and lets them drive the market.

However, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, can target bond interest rates and set these for the bond markets by manipulating bank reserves. Specifically, one way to do this (As Warren Mosler suggests), is that the Treasury can cease issuing long-term bonds, and sell only three-month bonds. Three-month bond interest rates are generally controlled by overnight rates for bank reserves, and overnight rates can be driven down to near zero by flooding the banks with excess reserves. That’s basically how the Japanese keep their bond interest rates near zero, and that’s how we can do the same.

Alternatively, another move we can make to remove the effects of the bond markets and the ratings agencies upon public finances, is for the Treasury to stop issuing debt in advance of deficit spending. If we did this, the credit rating agencies and the interest rates in the bond market would be irrelevant from that day forward. And we can do it using Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS) to generate revenues to pay back debt, and deficit spend current or future appropriations.

In short, the bond markets and the ratings agencies aren’t in control of US public finances. They are not in a position to influence what our taxing or spending policies ought to be, or whether we will default on our obligations. So, their tug on Superman’s cape is of no consequence for us, directly.

On the other hand, the ratings agencies are currently hurting US states, and Eurozone nations with their deeply corrupted ratings processes and judgments. We should take very seriously Bill Mitchell’s Conclusion in his post on outlawing the credit rating agencies:

“The real question that I always ask is why governments allow these undemocratic criminal organisations to exist. They can just outlaw them. This would force the corporate players to create better ways of informing the markets about their risk characteristics and leave governments alone to do what they are democratically elected to do – advance public purpose.

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.

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Joseph M. Firestone, Ph.D. is Managing Director, CEO of the Knowledge Management Consortium International (KMCI), and Director and co-Instructor of KMCI’s CKIM Certificate program, as well as Director of KMCI’s synchronous, real-time Distance Learning Program. He is also CKO of Executive Information Systems, Inc. a Knowledge and Information Management Consultancy.

Joe is author or co-author of more than 150 articles, white papers, and reports, as well as the following book-length publications: Knowledge Management and Risk Management; A Business Fable, UK: Ark Group, 2008, Risk Intelligence Metrics: An Adaptive Metrics Center Industry Report, Wilmington, DE: KMCI Online Press, 2006, “Has Knowledge management been Done,” Special Issue of The Learning Organization: An International Journal, 12, no. 2, April, 2005, Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003; Key Issues in The New Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003, and Excerpt # 1 from The Open Enterprise, Wilmington, DE: KMCI Online Press, 2003.

Joe is also developer of the web sites,,, and the blog “All Life is Problem Solving” at, and He has taught Political Science at the Graduate and Undergraduate Levels, and has a BA from Cornell University in Government, and MA and Ph.D. degrees in Comparative Politics and International Relations from Michigan State University.