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S&P defends downgrading of U.S. credit rating

Standard & Poor's says it downgraded the U.S. government's credit rating because it believes the U.S. will keep having problems getting its finances under control.

S&P officials on Saturday defended their decision to drop the government's rating to AA from the top rating, AAA.

The Obama administration called the move a hasty decision based on wrong calculations about the federal budget. It had tried to head off the downgrade before it was announced Friday.

But S&P said it was the months of haggling in Congress over budget cuts that led it to downgrade the U.S. rating. The ratings agency was dissatisfied with the deal that lawmakers reached last weekend, and it isn't confident that the government will do much better in the future, even as the U.S. budget deficit grows.

David Beers, global head of sovereign ratings at S&P, said the agency was concerned about the "degree of uncertainty around the political policy process. The nature of the debate and the difficulty in framing a political consensus ... that was the key consideration."

S&P was looking for $4 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years. The deal that Congress passed Tuesday would bring $2.1 trillion to $2.4 trillion in cuts during that time.

Another concern was that lawmakers and the administration might fail to make those cuts because Democrats and Republicans are divided over how to implement them. Republicans refuse to raise taxes in any deficit-cutting deal, while Democrats are fighting to protect entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

S&P so far is the only one of the three largest credit rating agencies to downgrade U.S. debt. Moody's Investor Service and Fitch have both issued warnings of possible downgrades but for now have retained their AAA ratings.

S&P may have gone ahead with a downgrade now to be sure it escapes the kind of criticism the agencies got after the 2008 financial crisis. They were accused of contributing to that crisis because they didn't warn about the dangers of subprime mortgages.

Asked when the United States might regain its AAA credit rating, Beers said S&P would take a look at any budget agreements that achieve bigger deficit savings. But the history of other countries such as Canada and Australia that saw cuts in their credit ratings shows that it can take years to win back the higher ratings.

Administration sources said the administration was surprised by the timing of the announcement, coming just a few days after the debt agreement had been signed into law.

Treasury officials were notified by S&P of the imminent downgrade early Friday afternoon and spent the next several hours arguing with S&P. The administration contended that S&P acknowledged at one point making a $2 trillion error in their computations of deficits over the next decade.

But S&P officials said the difference reflected the use of different assumptions about how much spending and taxes will total over the next decade. The S&P officials said they decided to use the administration's assumptions since the $2 trillion difference in the deficit numbers was not going to change the company's downgrade decision.

In a Treasury blog posting Saturday, John Bellows, the Treasury's acting assistant secretary for economic policy, said he was amazed by that decision.

"S&P did not believe a mistake of this magnitude was significant enough to warrant reconsidering their judgment or even significant enough to warrant another day to carefully re-evaluate their analysis," he wrote.

S&P officials noted that S&P had been warning about a potential downgrade since April.

Some critics raised questions about S&P's actions. "I find it interesting to see S&P so vigilant now in downgrading the U.S. credit rating," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said. "Where were they four years ago?"

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