S&P's powerful chief steps out of the shadows

 

Stephen Foley
Monday 08 August 2011 00:00
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Some time last Friday night, someone created a Wikipedia page for David T Beers. Overdue, you might think.

Mr Beers might be the most powerful man in the world that you've never heard of. He is the head of sovereign ratings at Standard & Poor's, which means that at the world's largest credit rating agency, he is responsible for the grades it slaps on each of the world's governments. And last Friday night, his team decided the US was no longer the risk-free AAA nation that it has been for the past 70 years. That night, Mr Beers changed the financial world.

So, yes, now he has a Wikipedia page. And yesterday, he was out of the shadows and on Fox News, of all places, explaining to a mystified country who he is, what gives S&P the right to pontificate on the creditworthiness of the US, and why it has stripped the US of its gold-plated rating.

The chain-smoking, moustachioed economist has been at S&P for more than 20 years, after an earlier career assessing government bonds for the Wall Street bank Salomon Brothers.

Although he graduated in international relations from the University of Virginia, Mr Beers lives these days in London, where he studied at the London School of Economics and has endowed a scholarship there in his name.

His emergence into the limelight is overdue, because there is a direct line from S&P's rulings to the cuts that governments around the world are imposing on their citizens. You might not have heard of him, but Treasury officials and finance ministers all over the world certainly have, and they fear S&P's judgement.

No one elected Mr Beers, and S&P's pivotal role in financial markets has grown up only over many generations, but here he is at the centre of the debt storm engulfing the eurozone and now the US – and under fire from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now that Mr Beers is in the firing line, he is – perhaps unsurprisingly – making a marked effort to play down his importance. On Fox News yesterday he defended the US downgrade and predicted it would have little effect on markets. He doesn't expect "that much impact" when trading resumes today, he said, because S&P's cut from AAA to AA+ represents only a "mild deterioration" in US credit standing.

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