Economy Watch: Fitch Affirms Stable Outlook for U.S. Debt

The rating agency Fitch affirmed various kinds of U.S. public debt at a rating of AAA, with a stable outlook.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

On Friday the rating agency Fitch affirmed various kinds of U.S. public debt at a rating of AAA, with a stable outlook. Back in October, before action by Congress on the debt ceiling that forestalled a crisis in confidence for at least a year, Fitch had issued a Rating Watch Negative, which meant that the rating agency was mulling a downgrade. Friday’s action lets investors know it isn’t mulling that option for now.

Fitch noted that it “forecasts [U.S.] gross general government debt… to peak at 100 percent of GDP in 2014 before declining slightly for four years. This is below the threshold of 110 percent that we previously identified as incompatible with an ‘AAA’ rating for the US.” (AAA is the rating agency’s highest basic rating, though it can be slightly higher at AAA+.) Fitch also forecasts federal government debt will be at 72.5 percent of GDP for 2014. The U.S. has greater debt tolerance than other AAA countries because (essentially) it’s the United States, and thus is the issuer of the world’s main reserve currency.

On the other hand, Fitch has revised its outlook on the Russian Federation’s public debt from Stable to Negative. Most of the country’s bonds are at BBB, though some debt is BBB+. Under the Fitch rating scheme, BBB is still investment grade debt, but of fairly low quality. The rating denotes a moderate default risk, with changes in circumstances or economic conditions more likely to affect the borrower’s capacity for timely repayment than for higher-rated debt. In this case, “circumstances” might mean exactly how the world responds (in economic terms) to the latest Russian adventurism.

Trucking index edges up in February

Two transit-related indexes were released on Friday, both indirect reflections of U.S. economic activity. According to the American Trucking Association, its For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index increased 2.8 percent in February, after dropping 4.5 percent the month before. Compared with February 2013, the index was up 3.6 percent.

“It is pretty clear that winter weather had a negative impact on truck tonnage during February,” ATA chief economist Bob Costello noted. “However, the impact wasn’t as bad as in January because of the backlog in freight due to the number of storms that hit over the January and February period.”

Also, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that travel on all roads and streets was down by 1.3 percent (a drop of 2.9 billion vehicle miles) in January 2014 as compared with January 2013. Again, the difference was likely due to the hard winter of 2014, as compared to the milder winter of 2013, since gas prices were roughly the same during the two periods.

Wall Street ended the week on a down note on Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average sinking 28.28 points, or 0.17 percent. The S&P 500 was off 0.29 percent and the Nasdaq lost 0.98 percent.

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