S&P, Moody's pass on debt impasse for now

@CNNMoney July 27, 2011: 2:31 PM ET

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) -- Rating agency officials declined to rate competing political plans to allow the United States to borrow more and cut deficits during a congressional hearing Wednesday.

Lawmakers grilled top officials from Standard & Poor's and Moody's at a House Financial Services subcommittee meeting, asking whether they'd downgrade U.S. credit rating under competing plans that Democrats and Republicans are working on.

Congress is locked in a political stalemate over how and whether to raise the cap on U.S. borrowing while cutting long-term deficits.

And many are watching the rating agencies closely. Rating agencies have the power to tell investors how risky a bet it is to lend to the federal government. A good rating means the United States can borrow cheaply. A downgrade will make it more expensive for the nation to borrow.

U.S. debt currently stands at the best level -- "AAA." But Moody's and Standard & Poor's have signaled that lack of a deal to both cut deficits and raise the debt ceiling could cost the nation its stellar credit rating.

Both Deven Sharma, president of Standard & Poor's, and Michael Rowan, global managing director at Moody's Investors Service, said their companies won't analyze political "plans or policies," unless they become the law of the land.

"We think some of the plans to reduce debt levels could bring the U.S. in the range for a triple-A rating," Sharma said. "But we're looking for what a final plan is."

However, when Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican, asked whether the U.S. debt levels pose a risk to the financial system, Sharma agreed that lawmakers need to cut federal deficits.

"The debt burden and growth rate of debt burden does need to be addressed for us to continue to grade U.S. debt at triple-A levels," Sharma added.

The hearing mostly focused on new laws that attempt to take a swipe at credit rating agencies, which were criticized for their role in the financial crisis for giving rubber-stamp good credit scores to securities derived from risky mortgages.

Regulators and credit rating agencies acknowledged that little has changed in that sector, as regulators have been slow at implementing the new laws.

Regulators are in the midst of scrubbing current laws from any requirements that credit rating agencies' stamp of approval be secured to consider certain financial products safe. To top of page

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