S&P slams Brexit, drops UK bond rating two notches

Wise precaution, or political gamesmanship? Suffice it to say that Standard & Poor’s sees the British vote to end its membership in the European Union as a big problem both economically and politically. The bond agency cut its rating on UK’s sovereign credit by two full steps, with a warning that more may follow:

“In our opinion, this outcome is a seminal event, and will lead to a less predictable, stable, and effective policy framework in the U.K. We have reassessed our view of the U.K.’s institutional assessment and now no longer consider it a strength in our assessment of the rating,” the ratings agency said in a news release.

The long-term sovereign credit decrease from “AAA” to “AA” is a two-notch fall for the U.K., and S&P also said it holds a negative outlook going forward.

Is this an overreaction? Previously, S&P asserted that the Brexit vote created the biggest daily loss in equity markets in history — outstripping the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008:

If that’s the case — and if that’s unrecoverable, which it probably isn’t — then it justifies some rethinking of credit ratings, to be sure. But why would that apply only to the UK? The British were arguably among the strongest entities in the EU, and their strength at least theoretically allowed weaker EU players to be better credit risks. S&P itself seems to have implicitly acknowledged that with its AAA rating on UK credit previous to today. If Brexit has made the UK more unstable, why wouldn’t that apply to other EU nations, especially those more on the bubble — and already part of the euro, which the UK wasn’t? This appears to be at least partially punitive.

Reuters points out some additional context:

S&P had been the only major ratings agency to maintain a triple-A rating for Britain.

Maybe they’re just catching up. On this point, though, S&P seems on firmer ground:

S&P also expressed some concern that wide-margin votes to remain within the EU from Scotland and Northern Ireland create “wider constitutional issues for the country as a whole.”

The UK narrowly avoided a breakup with Scotland in 2014, and Northern Ireland has always been fractious. Both have traditionally looked to the Continent for allies in its dealings with England, and both are more oriented in that direction already. The Republic of Ireland has fully committed to the EU, joining the euro and tying its fortunes to Brussels. This could be a wedge that could cross the traditional sectarian lines in Northern Ireland and breathe new life into a peaceful effort to end the partition in Ireland, and Scotland may not be far behind. If those came to pass, then the UK’s credit rating would justifiably need significant rethinking.

That would take quite a while to develop, however. For the moment, this has a whiff of a rush to judgment, or a political slap at the British electorate.