Opinion: European criticism of rating agencies is inappropriate | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.07.2011
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Opinion: European criticism of rating agencies is inappropriate

European politicians have been slamming US-based ratings agencies for downgrading Portugal's creditworthiness. Criticizing the agencies is inappropriate, says DW's Henrik Böhme - as are calls for a European agency.

Graphic of a pen and the word opinion

Portugal and Romania have quite a few things in common. Both countries are members of the European Union, one on the European bloc's western and the other on the eastern-most fringe. Both are grappling with economic problems, both had to be saved from bankruptcy with emergency credits from the IMF and the EU.

But what does any of this have to do with the three major US rating agencies, which have come under intense fire these past days?

Well, one of the agencies has drastically downgraded Portugal's creditworthiness - while another has upgraded that of Romania. That led to a fierce political response in the first case. There was no reaction at all in the latter case, which could be due to the fact that the government in Bucharest has done part of its homework: The country's debt ratio is currently at 30 percent. In Portugal, the ratio relative to the gross domestic product is 93 percent.

Henrik Böhme

Henrik Böhme heads the DW German department's business desk

Rating agencies rate the creditworthiness not just of companies, but of entire nations which also borrow money on private capital markets in order to shoulder their state budgets. And if you lend someone money, you want to know how creditworthy the borrower is. At the moment, Portugal is having a tough time borrowing money on the financial markets, Greece can't borrow at all. While the European Central Bank (ECB) has in the past relied on the services of major rating agencies like Standard & Poors, Moody's or Fitch, even ECB chief Jean-Claude Trichet has joined the chorus of those beating up on the raters. Which is as hypocritical as can be.

European politicians' calls for breaking the US agencies' oligopoly detracts from their own shortcomings.

After all, it wasn't the rating agencies that accumulated the EU nations' mountains of debt. The European currency union's faulty architecture was not designed in Manhattan's financial district. Building a joint Europe based on a common currency - that is simply not enough. Early on, experts warned against creating a currency union of nations whose national economies differ so strongly.

Now, tensions within this structure have become so intense that the union threatens to break apart. The perfect scapegoats at this point: rating agencies.

Of course, the analysts at Standard & Poors and the other agencies made their share of mistakes in the financial crisis. They gift-wrapped highly risky bonds and gave them top ratings. They made billions - and burned billions when the financial tsunami hit the markets. They stand accused of not having issued a warning. Now - in the case of the troubled Europeans - they are sounding an early warning. That's not right either, politicians say, and urge the creation of a European rating agency.

But what for? Is a European rating agency supposed to give a borrower a friendlier rating just because he is a European borrower? What is Washington bound to say about that? In view of the US's looming insolvency, the agencies are warning of a drastic downgrade of US creditworthiness. Should the US not manage to repay government loans worth $30 billion by August 4, the nation would be immediately downgraded to 'D' status - as in default.

Has that led to criticism by even one White House representative? Not that we know of. European politicians should follow that example.

Author: Henrik Böhme / db
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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