Wednesday, December 21, 2016
If it's doing badly, it publishes as close to Christmas as it thinks it can get away with, when normal people are busy with parties and preparations and not paying much attention.
This year we got the update just six sleeps before Santa's arrival. Draw your own conclusions.
And this year the government was worried, we're told, that the continued slippage in its efforts to repair the budget would prompt the credit rating agencies to downgrade our AAA status.
Labor was already salivating at the prospect, with finance spokesman Jim Chalmers confidently predicting a downgrade would "smash confidence in our economy" and "push up borrowing costs for households and small businesses".
You beauty! If that doesn't improve Labor's chances of beating the Coalition at the next election, what will? A little damage to the economy in the meantime? A price Labor would be happy for us to pay.
In the event, however, all three ratings agencies announced the update had done nothing to change their views.
But the government isn't off the hook. The most aggressive publicity seeker of the three, Standard & Poor's, didn't confirm our AAA rating, it said the update gave it no reason to change its "negative outlook" for that rating.
So the agency's supposed fiscal sword of Damocles remains hanging over Scott Morrison's head at least until the budget in May.
To tell you the truth, I'm sorry it didn't fall this week. That's not because I bear the government any ill will, but because the sooner we're downgraded, the sooner the public will realise there's little to fear from a downgrade. The ratings agencies are toothless tigers.
In any case, there is no good reason any sovereign Australian government – federal or state – should allow a few American for-profit businesses to dictate how much it should or shouldn't borrow (nor engage in hugely expensive ways of disguising the true extent of its liabilities).
The ratings agencies' credibility has been destroyed by their part in the global financial crisis. Not only did these all-wise experts fail to see it coming, they contributed to the conflagration by awarding AAA ratings to the promoters of "collateralised debt obligations" – for the small fee – that soon turned into "toxic debt".
It's long been questionable whether the agencies were leaders or followers in identifying the risks attached to the bonds issued by businesses and governments, but since the GFC there's little doubt the financial markets don't need their advice.
When Standard & Poor's downgraded US government bonds in 2011, the financial markets took no notice and the two other agencies left it hanging out to dry.
S&P downgraded Greece's government bonds only months after its budget cover-up became public in 2009.
All three agencies downgraded Britain's bonds immediately after Brexit, but market yields (interest rates) on those securities actually fell.
So it's not at all clear that a downgrading of our credit rating would do anything much to increase the interest rate at which our government can borrow.
And while it's technically true a downgrading of Australia's "sovereign" credit rating would flow on to the ratings of our banks, it's not clear this would increase their borrowing costs abroad, nor that there would be any flow-on to home buyers and small businesses.
While Labor's Chalmers was telling anyone who'd listen of the disaster about to befall everyone with a mortgage, the chief executive of ANZ Bank, Shayne Elliott, was telling his shareholders that a downgrade had already been priced into the funding costs for Australian banks.
Should the banks actually pass on that increase on to their customers, it would tell us less about the Turnbull government's budget failings than about the failure of successive governments – Labor included – to do enough to encourage greater competition between the big four banks, generous party donors that they are.
It suits neither the government nor the opposition to admit that the rating agencies' pressure on us to cut government spending is diametrically opposed to the advice we're getting from the two genuine international economic authorities, the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Their advice is that, with our economy weaker than it should be, we still have plenty of "fiscal space" to strengthen the economy by borrowing to finance increased spending on worthwhile infrastructure.
All this is why I say that, these days, the economic significance of our credit rating is long gone.
It retains much political significance, however.
Governments – federal and state – still live in fear of a downgrade simply because they know their political opponents would parade this as a disaster for the government, the economy and public and private borrowers, as well as objective, authoritative proof that they are utterly hopeless economic managers.
Credit ratings are now little more than something the politicians use to slag each other off.
This is why I'm sorry we weren't downgraded this week. Only when the public experiences the ratings agencies' inability to have much effect on the interest rates we pay will they lose their power over our governments, and the pollies lose credit ratings as a political football.