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S&P, already bearish, doesn't dwell on the 'cliff'

The Associated Press

Standard & Poor's, the ratings agency that sent the stock market into a tailspin last year when it downgraded its rating on U.S. debt, said Friday that it doesn't expect the "fiscal cliff" negotiations to affect its current rating on the U.S.

That's not because S&P is particularly bullish on U.S. finances. Rather it's because S&P isn't optimistic about the U.S. rating, regardless of a budget deal.

If there is no deal, the U.S. economy could shrink by half a percentage point in 2013, S&P said. Unemployment, now at 7.7 percent, could rise above 9 percent in 2014.

But even a successfully brokered deal probably wouldn't be enough to place the country's public finances "on a sustainable footing" for the medium term, the agency said.

S&P already has a "negative outlook" on the U.S., meaning it could lower its rating.

The "fiscal cliff" refers to higher taxes and lower government spending that will kick in starting Tuesday, if Republicans and Democrats can't hammer out a budget compromise by Monday night. Worries over the "fiscal cliff" have pushed U.S. stocks down for five trading days in a row, the longest decline since July.

It's a scene reminiscent of August 2011, when S&P lowered its rating on the U.S. from the top "AAA" down a notch to "AA+." That is still well within "investment grade" territory, but the psychological blow was enough to send the market reeling.

At the time S&P cited "political brinkmanship" as lawmakers argued over whether to raise the government's "debt ceiling," or borrowing limit. The ratings agency said then that "America's governance and policymaking (is) becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable."

Friday it added, "We believe that this characterization still holds."