Only three American companies can brag of a higher credit rating than the United States government: ExxonMobil, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson.
Soon that elite group could shrink to just two.
Standard & Poor's threatened on Tuesday to strip Exxon ( of its perfect AAA credit rating. The ratings company placed Exxon on a negative credit watch, warning the oil giant's credit measures will remain "weak" through 2018 due to the dramatic plunge in oil prices. )
The world's largest publicly-traded oil company, Exxon could lose its AAA status within the next 90 days, S&P said.
That would leave Microsoft (Tech30) and , Johnson & Johnson ( as the only remaining U.S. companies with perfect ratings from S&P. )
The AAA rating is reserved for companies with an "extremely strong" ability to pay off their debt and allows them to borrow money very cheaply.
S&P rattled global investors in 2011 by removing the U.S. government's AAA rating in 2011 amid political instability in Washington. S&P also infamously gave the perfect credit rating to mortgage securities that later imploded during the 2008 financial crisis.
The S&P move is the latest sign of stress on the oil industry. Exxon has slashed spending to cope with the 75% drop in oil prices since mid-2014. The company's annual profits have dwindled from a stunning $45 billion in 2014 to a more pedestrian $16.2 billion last year.
Before Tuesday, Big Oil's credit ratings had been left largely intact by S&P. But with oil sinking back to $30 a barrel, the ratings firm took action by downgrading Chevron (, )EOG Resources (, )Apache (, )Devon Energy (, )Hess (, )Marathon Oil (, )Murphy Oil (, )Continental Resources ( and )Southwestern Energy (. )
In addition to Exxon, S&P also warned it could downgrade the credit ratings of ConocoPhillips ( and )Anadarko Petroleum (. )
S&P said these companies' efforts to "stem the meaningful deterioration" in their balance sheets have been largely "insufficient."
Investors are bracing for a wave of defaults from smaller oil companies that piled on lots of debt during the boom times. S&P has previously warned that half of energy junk bonds are at risk of default.