Hot Docs: Credit Rating Agencies 'a Colossal Failure,' U.S. Economic Recovery in Late 2009

Today's selection of timely reports.

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Credit Rating Agencies and the Financial Crisis: Continuing its hearings into the causes of the economic crisis, the House Oversight Committee looks into the role of the credit rating agencies, which evaluate the riskiness of debts. The committee's chair, Henry Waxman, deems the agencies a "colossal failure" for continuing to rate investments related to subprime loans highly even after the market's downturn became apparent. To gauge what happened and whether the agencies' actions were appropriate, the committee heard testimony from executives and former employees from the three major rating agencies: Standard and Poor's, Moody's, and Fitch. Though some say that the economic crisis could not have been foreseen (Moody's CEO McDaniel calls the last several weeks "unimaginable"), the committee cited E-mails and internal presentations revealing that at least some executives, employees, and investors voiced misgivings about the debts being evaluated. One S&P employee joked in an instant message exchange, "It could be structured by cows and we would rate it."

Regional Economic Outlook: Western Hemisphere: The U.S. recovery from the current financial crisis will not begin until the second half of 2009 and will move at a slower pace than previous economic recoveries, according to the International Monetary Fund's fall "Regional Economic Outlook for the Western Hemisphere." The report also notes that "growth in the advanced economies as a whole will also be close to zero at least until the middle of 2009." On a more positive note, the report "anticipates" that the actions taken to stem the crisis "will be successful in stabilizing financial conditions."

Futures Denied: Stateless Children: Millions of children worldwide "lack formal recognition of their existence," a limbo status that can take a heavy toll on their health, livelihood, and legal protections. The nonprofit advocacy group Refugees International examines the plight of these "stateless" children, who are often denied an "effective nationality" because of their family's ethnicity, refugee status, or illiteracy. Children lacking a birth certificate or other documents proving their identity can be denied access to education, healthcare, and legal protection, and without documents they cannot travel freely. Refugees International has also found that, because they cannot prove that they are minors, stateless children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. The group concludes that governments must move to address the situation and recommends actions that would register and protect stateless children. Failure to act, the report says, "allows millions of youth to grow up poor, uneducated, and isolated from society."

U.S. Moves Up in Press Freedom Rankings: When it comes to press freedom, the United States ranks just below France and just above Macedonia, according to the Reporters Without Borders' 2008 Press Freedom Index. While being tied for 36th place out of 173 countries in the international press freedom organization's ranking garners the United States just a satisfactory grade, it is an improvement over last year, when the United States placed 48th out of 168 countries.

An Increase in Kids With Food Allergies: The number of children who suffer from food allergies is on the rise, according to a data brief from the National Center for Health Statistics. NCHS reports 4 percent of U.S. children have a food allergy. The data brief discusses the findings of a 2007 National Health Interview Survey questionnaire that collected information on 9,500 children. A majority—90 percent—of food allergies are caused by peanuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. Food allergies in children 4 and younger are more prevalent than in children 5 and older. From 1997 to 2007, the number of children with food allergies increased 18 percent.