Markets fear Aussie credit downgrade on cards

Britain has lost it and markets are fearing that Australia will soon lose it as well.

"It" refers to the triple-A, the top sovereign credit rating bestowed by Moody's, S&P's and Fitch to the most financially prudent economies. Australia's political upheaval as it faces the prospect of a hung Parliament has markets concerned about its rating, even as Moody's reaffirmed on Monday that "short-lived political uncertainty would have limited credit implications for Australia".

However, Fitch said that a wider budget deficit could put downward pressure on the rating, while S&P said it could lower the rating if parliamentary gridlock continues.

Just 10 countries, including Singapore, Germany and Sweden, have the top-notch rating, prompting questions on its significance.

Mr Mervyn Tang, director of sovereign and supranational ratings at Fitch, said the agency gives a triple-A rating to countries with "exceptionally strong credit profile across structural factors, macroeconomic factors, public finances and external finances".

Britain was the latest country to fall out of the triple-A club, following its vote to leave the European Union.

Most economists The Straits Times spoke to were unanimous on the desirability of the rating, even as the number of countries in the triple-A club gets smaller. However, they added that losing the top rating to the second-highest one, which is typically seen as increasing borrowing costs, is not as significant as it sounds.

"AAA rating is good to have, of course, as it is a clear endorsement of fiscal prudence, as in the case of Singapore," said Mr Heng Koon How, foreign exchange strategist at Credit Suisse.

"But given the current environment of investor flight to quality, it makes little difference in terms of funding cost if there is a one-notch downgrade from AAA to AA."

Mr Tang of Fitch noted that credit risk is only one component of funding costs, adding that domestic and external interest rates, market risk sentiment and liquidity also contribute.

In the case of Australia, Mr Andrew Ticehurst, Nomura's Sydney-based Australia rates strategist, said the economic cost of losing the highest triple-A rating is likely to be "relatively modest".

"Our feedback from investors across the region is that they would continue to purchase government debt if Australia were downgraded by rating agencies," he added.

Mr Ticehurst said the political consequences of any loss of Australia's AAA rating would be larger than any economic cost.

While Ms Marie Diron, senior vice-president at Moody's Investor Service, said the Australian economy is unusual among triple-A-rated countries in that much of its financing comes from abroad.

"At a triple-A level, long-term factors like economic growth and institutional strengths are what will influence the relative strength or weakness for that rating," she added. "There is embedded resilience for a triple-A sovereign that can deal with short-term periods of slower growth, a widening of public deficits and similar developments."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2016, with the headline 'Markets fear Aussie credit downgrade on cards'. Print Edition | Subscribe