For next rating downgrade, S&P may look at France
Commentary: France has lots of debt, and dysfunctional politics
LONDON (MarketWatch) — The U.S. is broke? Been there. Italy is bankrupt. Done that. Spain is teetering on the edge? Got the T-shirt. There is, however, one major industrial country that has so far managed to sail through the market turmoil without anyone seriously questioning its credit-worthiness: France.
And yet, if you‘re looking for the next downgrade, and the source of the next shock to the global markets, it’s France you should be looking toward. The country’s debt is exploding. It is steadily losing competitiveness against Germany, and running up huge trade deficits. Its political system is every bit as dysfunctional as America’s. And, of course, it is about to be presented with a massive bill for bailing out Italy and Spain.
A French downgrade may only be a matter of time. If it happens, it’s going to be a huge blow to already-fragile markets. The country has the fourth largest debt in the world, and its paper is heavily traded by global investors. There would be some nasty losses on a French downgrade.
True, there is not much sign of it yet.
Almost at the same time as it was downgrading the United States, Standard & Poor’s was reaffirming France’s status as the most rock-solid of borrowers. According to the French newspaper Liberation, an S&P spokesman stated that there were no plans to downgrade France. There were no question marks over the solvency of the nation.
Really? Take a closer look and you might start to wonder.
First, French debt is escalating rapidly. It might not be as big as that of some other countries yet, but it’s getting there fast. Last year it ran a deficit of 7% of GDP. French debt will total 90% of GDP this year and 95% in 2012, according to estimates by Capital Economics. That isn’t exactly running out of control — but it is getting very close. Indeed, it’s around the same levels of debt-to-GDP that earned the U.S. a downgrade. And France is racking up fresh debt at a faster rate than countries such as Italy or Spain. It is hard to see how you can feel comfortable about that.
Next, France is steadily losing competitiveness against Germany — in exactly the same way that countries such as Italy and Spain have, except not quite so quickly. France, a major manufacturing center, used to run healthy trade surpluses; now it runs big deficits. The balance of trade for the six months to June showed a deficit of 37.5 billion euros compared with a deficit of 27.6 billion euros in the last six months of 2010, figures released last week showed. The deficit with Germany, its major trading partner, is running at a billion euros a month. Back in 2004, it was regularly running surpluses of a billion euros a month. Countries with big, persistent trade deficits — as any American can testify — have to borrow to fund themselves. The bigger the debts they run up, the greater the risk of a downgrade.
Third, if the U.S. has a dysfunctional political system, then France is not much better. Like the U.S., it has separate elections for the president and the legislature, creating a system that is often close to paralysis. And no other country in the developed world is quite so resistant to economic reform: Any modifications to working hours or pensions or welfare plans brings out rioters and is usually swiftly abandoned.
And like the U.S., it has a president who came to power on a wave of optimism, and has since turned out to be fairly ineffectual. France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy is deeply unpopular. He is scoring in the mid-20s in the polls — a slight recovery from the nadir early this year, but hardly a secure position. Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front leader, is scoring around 20%, and she advocates pulling out of the euro and restoring the franc. Indeed, of all the main euro-area countries, France is the only one where a major (if not exactly mainstream) political movement argues for breaking up the single currency.
Finally, if Italy and Spain have to be rescued, then it will be France that foots a lot of the bill. Germany can afford it; France can’t. Once you add Spanish and Italian debts, the French balance sheet looks in terrible shape.
“With the turmoil in Europe there have been many politicians suggesting that the size of the [European Financial Stability Fund, or EFSF] has to be increased,” noted Gary Jenkins of Evolution Securities in an analysis on Monday. “But any suggestion that the EU is turning into a fiscal union (even if by default) could well have an impact on individual sovereigns’ ratings as well as the EFSF structure.” Indeed so. Every time a euro-area country has to be bailed out, it puts more pressure on the finances of the few that remain completely solvent.
Add it all up, and if the U.S. is getting downgraded there is no reason for the ratings agencies not to turn their fire on France next. That matters hugely for the financial system. While countries such as Greece and Portugal are largely irrelevant to the global system, France is very important. The country has a lot of paper out there — the government has total outstanding debts of $1.7 trillion, making it the fourth largest debtor in the world after the U.S., Japan and Italy. And that debt is far more widely held — 38% of French debt is held internationally, which is a lot more than Italy (24%), the U.S. (21%) or Japan (2%), according to calculations made by the research house TheCityUK.
The cost of insuring against a French default is starting to rise. The markets have started to notice the country’s dire position. It can’t be that long before the rating agencies catch up. If France does get downgraded, then it is going to be a very serious blow to the markets. Just about every bank and every bond portfolio in the world is going to take a hit.
Matthew Lynn is a financial journalist based in London. He is the author of "Bust: Greece, the Euro and the Sovereign Debt Crisis," and he writes adventure thrillers under the name Matt Lynn.
Il y a déjà des milliers de français qui viennent vivre au Québec chaque année, je crois que cela laisse présager que le mouvement va encore plus s'accentuer...