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Man behind S&P's downgrade on U.S. has Kansas roots

The day America lost its AAA credit rating, a Kansas City native led the team that made the unprecedented cut.

He is John B. Chambers, chairman of the sovereign rating committee at Standard & Poor’s Corp. in New York. He was born 55 years ago at St. Luke’s Hospital to an affluent family in Fairway.

In between, Chambers impressed friends and family as a “go-getter” who displayed “high intellect,” “sterling character” and “good judgment.”

Classmates from Shawnee Mission North High School remember him as an Eagle Scout with shoulder-length hair. He was not only editor of the yearbook but also the principal force behind an alternative school newspaper called the Underground Railroad.

Chambers has been a competitive swimmer for half a century, and his first summer paycheck came as a lifeguard.

“I had more power then than I’ve ever had since. I could kick people out of the swimming pool,” Chambers said jokingly in an interview with The Kansas City Star.

S&P’s rating cut two weeks ago shocked financial markets, and Chambers drew the attention of millions by going on several weekend news broadcasts to explain and defend the controversial call.

“John really comes across as a dour personality in those interviews,” said Jim Chambers, his brother who is a retired chemistry teacher in Knoxville, Tenn. “He’s not like that at all. He’s smiling, cheerful, witty.”

He also has moved far from his Midwestern roots to become what another family member called “a cosmopolitan person,” complete with a European-New York accent that crept out during those weekend TV interviews.

“That’s not how he talked when he lived in Kansas City,” said his brother, Stephen Chambers, an attorney in Michigan. “We certainly kid him about it at every family reunion.”

No one is taking S&P’s downgrade of the United States lightly. The blowback from the contentious move came hard and quick.

White House officials charged S&P made errors in its analysis, and President Barack Obama declared the nation was, is and always will be AAA. Investment guru Warren Buffett, who owns a stake in rival rating agency Moody’s Investors Service, said S&P should have upgraded the nation to quadruple-A.

Moody’s and Fitch Ratings, another agency, have preserved their top ratings for America, leading many experts to dismiss S&P’s decision as meaningless or even damaging to the firm.

The decision to cut the credit rating was not Chambers’ alone.

Two other men from the committee put their names on the report: David Beers, who is S&P’s global head of sovereign ratings as well as Chambers’ boss, and Nikola Swann, who is the chief analyst and third member of the group. S&P won’t say who else is on the committee or even how many participated in the decision.

It’s Chambers, however, who has drawn flak.

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