By Pallavi Gogoi, AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. averted a debt default Tuesday when President Barack Obama signed a bill raising the country's debt ceiling. But the debt deal might not be enough to maintain its coveted AAA debt rating, according to two credit rating agencies.
On Tuesday, Fitch Ratings said the agreement to raise the debt ceiling and make spending cuts was an important first step but "not the end of the process." The rating agency said it wants to see a credible plan to reduce the budget deficit "to a level that would secure the United States' 'AAA' status."
And late on Tuesday, Moody's Investors Service assigned a negative outlook to U.S. debt, but confirmed its AAA rating — for now. A negative outlook means the rating agency could lower the rating in the next 12 to 18 months. Moody's said that continued slow economic growth, higher interest rates could lead to a downgrade. Moody's also said weak fiscal discipline in the coming year could do the same.
U.S. debt has held the AAA rating since 1917. Fewer than 20 countries are currently rated AAA. Among them: the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and Singapore.Fitch expects to conclude its review of the U.S.'s debt rating by the end of August. Given the terms of the debt deal signed Tuesday, it is possible the U.S. debt rating could be downgraded at that time, Fitch said.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, David Riley, managing director at Fitch, said, "There's more to be done in order to keep the rating in the medium-term."
The three main ratings agencies rate the debt issued by countries, states, corporations and municipalities. Ratings are based on a likelihood of default.
The AAA rating is the highest available and signifies an extremely low likelihood of default.
Standard & Poor's, the other major ratings agency, declined to comment Tuesday. In mid-July S&P warned that there was a 50-50 chance it would downgrade U.S. debt. Had the country defaulted, experts have said a downgrade by all three agencies would have been likely.
The U.S. has only faced the threat of a downgrade once in the last 96 years. In 1995, when Bill Clinton was president, a similar default loomed and the credit rating agencies threatened a downgrade. At the time, the country had $4.9 trillion in debt — nearly $10 trillion less than it has now. Once Congress resolved that debt crisis a year later, the credit agencies removed the threat.