Thursday, June 23, 2011

What could happen if the debt ceiling isn’t increased and the U.S. defaults?

What could happen if Republicans and Democrats can’t reach agreement on the budget, the debt ceiling is not increased and the U.S. government defaults?

Here is what some economists are saying/predicting:

Maury Harris, chief U.S. economist for UBS Investment Bank, and Drew T. Matus, senior U.S. economist,UBS Investment Bank

The U.S. occupies a special place in global finance. The symbiotic relationship between the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency and the U.S. Treasury market’s monopolistic position as the safest, most liquid bond market in the world has served this country well. This unique position has allowed the U.S. to exercise significant authority in the global economy and enhanced its standing as a world power. Even a temporary default would eliminate the safe and liquid nature of the U.S. Treasury market, harming this country’s ability to exercise its power, to the detriment of the U.S. and the global economy.

The main impact on markets would come from sharply reduced liquidity in the U.S. Treasury market, as financial firms’ procedures and systems would be tested by the world’s largest debt market being in default. Given the existing legal contracts, trading agreements, and trading systems with which firms operate, could U.S. Treasurys be held or purchased or used as collateral? The aftermath of the failure of Lehman Brothers should be a reminder that the financial system’s “plumbing” matters. All the legal commitments and limitations in a complex financial system mean a shock from an event that is viewed as inconceivable – such as a U.S. Treasury default – can cause the system to stall. The impact of a U.S. Treasury default could make us nostalgic for the market conditions that existed immediately after the failure of Lehman Brothers.


The U.S. would risk not winning back its top Aaa credit rating soon if a failure by Congress to raise the nation’s debt limit causes even a short-term default, according to Moody’s Investors Service’s senior credit officer.
“Up until now, our assumption was that the risk is virtually zero of them ever missing an interest payment,” Moody’s Steven Hess said during an interview. “If they actually miss a debt payment, then it’s a fundamental change.”

A default stemming from “the debt limit and the political configuration would indicate that, well, this might happen again,” Hess said at Bloomberg headquarters in New York on June 21. “That risk is perhaps not compatible with Aaa.”

 Donald Marron is director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. He previously served as acting director of the Congressional Budget Office and member of the president's Council of Economic Advisers.

Large swaths of America's financial infrastructure have been built on the assumption that US Treasuries pay on time. And financial markets would likely punish the US with higher interest rates if we defaulted. That's what happened in 1979, for example, when back office snafus caused Treasury to unintentionally miss payments to some investors.

This time, Fitch, Moody's, and Standard & Poors are threatening to cut the US credit rating if we choose to default. Given the risks, most observers recognize that default is not, and should not be, an option. The US is not a deadbeat nation.

America is currently spending about $100 billion more each month than it collects in revenues. If we hit the debt limit, we won't be able to pay everyone who is rightly expecting to be paid.

Geithner can and should ensure that our debtholders get paid.

But someone – perhaps millions of someones – won't be paid on time. Contractors, federal workers, program beneficiaries, or state and local governments will suddenly find themselves short on their cash flow.

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