In boom times, credit rating agencies, like S&P, are thought to have the foresight of the Fates- figures of Greek (et al.) Mythology who spun, measured, and cut the threads of life. As boom turns to bust, these credit rating agencies fall into the trap of spinning too much thread which is only measured and cut after credit death occurs.
After getting caught looking in the rear view window a few too many times, our Fates of credit appear to be attempting an image rehab with Big Game- the long term credit rating of the United States. Of course, as S&P is made up of real people, not mythical figures, they aren't as brave as Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos and thus are merely threatening to measure the life-span of US AAA credit (i.e. shifting the outlook to negative), rather than pronouncing a definite end.
For my money (and let's be clear, the debt under review is that upon which the $s in my pocket are valued) S&P's focus on the debt ceiling sideshow in Congress as catalyst for default is likely misguided. Then again, I wouldn't be totally shocked to see the newbies in Congress force a default of a few bond payments just to make the Prez (who gets no more respect from me since his invasion of Libya) look bad and thus win more votes. Yes it would be colossally stupid and therefore, not out of the question. S&P puts the odds at 1 in 3.
Assuming Congress avoids the colossally stupid option and raises the debt ceiling, the "no risk of US default" views of Barry Ritholtz and Yves Smith et alios would seem to suffice. The US issues the currency in which its debt is paid, in somewhat similar fashion to the Tech companies of the 90s. So long as our foreign creditors continue buying US debt, default would be self inflicted.
If I was playing the role of the credit fate, Lachesis, who measures the thread, I wouldn't be watching the shenanigans in Congress but rather our creditors' perception of rising confusion and dissent in the US. Our nation seems adrift in a self-inflicted sophisticated fog.
We are promoters of freedom currently engaged in 3 colonial projects (Iraq, Afghanistan and now, Libya) which engenders great confusion. We want control, but we don't want to be seen grabbing it coercively. We are confused. Colonies, as history attests, are difficult ventures when such policies are overt. Covert colonialism seems to me a contradiction in terms.
Congressional pissing matches over the debt ceiling are another sign of great confusion. Those who cheer Tea Party "balance the budget" principles would, in the event the right flexes its muscles, discover the rapid reduction of government employment and spending in a highly leveraged economy creates most unpleasant effects.
This isn't to argue against deficit reduction in general (I suspect terminating our covert colonial ventures and redirecting that labor force back home on infrastructure would go a long way towards solving many problems) just the method on offer.
Worse than our confusion, from the perspective of the single party Chinese, is the dissent, notably that from S&P. While the Chinese ruling party has apparently learned to deal with US political kabuki, the notion of a US ratings agency downgrading its outlook on US debt must strike them as odd indeed. Having invented paper money, the Chinese know it rests on faith- faith that is eroded by dissent, ergo their rigorous crackdowns on such.
Eventually the Chinese, whose faith in US economic policy making was shaken during the debt crisis of 2008-09, will tire of the confused games in the US and force us to deal with them with real currency, not the funny money we call US Federal Reserve Notes. Far worse for the US than default is enforced real currency dealings. As with all sophisticated cultures, reality is a bitch.