Can America regain its AAA rating?

A look at countries that have regained a AAA rating in the past, and whether the U.S. is on track to having its debt rating restored.

Is U.S. credit permanently tarnished by the recent downgrade of its debt by Standard & Poor's? Can the U.S. ever regain its once perfect AAA rating? If history is any guide, the answer to the first question is no. And the answer to the second question is yes.

Many of the world's nations once enjoyed AAA ratings, then lost that rating because of domestic economic problems, but eventually regained it. There's no reason to prevent the U.S. from repeating what these other nations have accomplished. Much has to be done, however, before S&P might be inclined to re-evaluate its opinion of U.S. debt.

The two other major ratings services, Moody's Investor Services and Fitch, have yet to downgrade U.S. debt from AAA. But both firms have warned that a downgrade may occur in the future, depending on economic conditions and how the U.S. government handles its staggering debt.

In almost every instance in which a nation recovered its AAA rating, economic problems were solved by cutting entitlement programs and benefits, and by raising taxes.

Countries that lost AAA

  • Ireland in 2009    
  • Japan in 2001    
  • New Zealand in 1983    
  • Spain in 2009    
  • Venezuela in 1982

Nations that lost AAA (but gained it back later) 

  • Australia lost AAA rating in 1986, regained it in 2003    
  • Canada lost AAA rating in 1992, regained it in 2002    
  • Denmark lost AAA rating in 1983, regained it in 2001    
  • Finland lost AAA rating in 1992, regained it in 2002    
  • Sweden lost AAA rating in 1993, regained it in 2004

Canada reduced government spending by imposing wage freezes, cutting government and civil service programs, and reassigning certain national government expenses to provincial governments 

About half of Denmark's deficit was reduced through increasing revenue — taxes.

Finland added a value added tax to reduce its deficit and devalued its currency to help it compete in global markets.

Besides cutting social benefits, Sweden also increased income and payroll taxes. A favourable exchange rate also helped increase exports.

Australia similarly consolidated its debt, and both cut expenses and raised revenues.

Cuts coming

The American Plan Members of the U.S. Congress are now debating the methods in a 12-member so-called bipartisan Super Committee by which its debt can be reduced and its AAA rating restored. The committee's mission is to suggest at least $1.2 trillion in budget cuts by this coming Thanksgiving, November 24. The most likely committee scenario, according to many veteran print and broadcast media reporters, is a list of recommendations split along political lines.

Despite the downgrade of American. debt, investors — individual, institutional and sovereign nation — have continued to buy U.S. Treasuries although fed chairman Ben Bernanke has promised there'll be no increase in yields for the next two years. So America continues to borrow as the national debt climbs relentlessly.

When the Fed chairman's moratorium on interest increases expires in 2013, America's economy may be on a major upswing, the country's national debt may be stabilized, under control and being reduced as government spending is cut and revenues increase. Under those circumstances, S&P may restore the nation's AAA rating as it has to the countries mentioned above. But as S&P has done in the past, it can also lower the nation's debt rating even further.