downgrade, default and Default: a Washington scorecard

framing the issue

1.  In round terms, the Federal government is taking in $2.5 trillion a year and spending $4 trillion.  It borrows the $1.5 trillion difference by issuing Treasury securities.

The main areas of government outlay are:

–military     25%

–healthcare     23%

–pensions     21%

–welfare payments     13%.

Interest payments on Treasuries amount to around $200 billion.  That’s 5% of total outlays, or 8% of tax receipts.  This isn’t a near-term concern, but imagine what would happen if fates started to rise.

2.  Congress periodically passes laws setting a maximum allowable level of federal government borrowing.  The current limit is $14.3 trillion (including things like government agency debt in addition to Treasuries).  The Treasury Department estimates Washington hit that limit in mid-May.  The Treasury can create wiggle room for a while–like keeping the proceeds of maturing Treasuries in federal government employee retirement funds under the mattress instead of reinvesting them.  Such stalling tactics will probably run out within a couple of weeks.

what can happen

rating agencies

Let’s look at the rating agencies first. 

S&P is saying that it wants to see some evidence that Washington will do something now to address the budget deficit and the accompanying buildup of federal debt rather than pushing action back until after the November 2012 election.  In the latter case, S&P argues, legislation will be passed in 2013 at the earliest and probably won’t take effect for some time after that.

If it doesn’t see action, chances are it will downgrade Treasury debt from AAA.  It has also said that if congress doesn’t act like grownups, it may downgrade for that reason alone.

Downgrade is unlikely to come as a shock to an institutional buyer of Treasuries, domestic or foreign, who will have seen US government finances steadily deteriorate over more than a decade, from surplus in 2000 to the current situation.

In theory, downgrade means that the US will have to offer higher interest rates to induce investors to continue holding Treasuries.   Maybe, maybe not.

To my mind, there are two big practical issues with downgrade:

1.  The more important is whether/how the role of Treasuries in the working of global financial markets will change.  This is a question of the rules that financial players have to follow, either because of legislation in their countries or their contracts with customers.

Will institutional borrowers have to put up more Treasuries to collateralize a given transaction than before?  Will investment companies be forced by their contracts with customers to hold fewer Treasuries than before?  Will they have to sell, or just let their holdings mature and not reinvest?  How will this affect the ability of corporations to get short-term finance?

At the very least there may be a period of adjustment that reduces the speed of financial transactions–and therefore economic growth.

2.  The second is how domestic retail investors will feel about Treasuries after a downgrade.  Will they withdraw money from money market funds that concentrate on government paper?  As I mentioned in an earlier post, money market funds are already bracing for withdrawals by emphasizing the shortest-term securities.  This is having a negative effect on the ability of some EU banks to tap short-term sources of funds.

default

This is a separate issue from downgrade.  It’s much more serious.

Mr. Geithner has been careful to say that if the debt ceiling limit isn’t raised the government will default “on its obligations.”  This is very different from saying that the government will default on its debt–either by failing to make interest payments or by not returning principal on maturity.

Without the ability to borrow, the federal government won’t be able to pay 40% of its bills, or about $130 billion worth a month.  Given that failing to service existing debt would be disastrous–also, given the fact that interest payments on Treasuries are only a drop in the bucket at present–the Treasury Department would certainly have debt service as its number-one priority.  So, as a practical matter, default on government debt is out of the question.

Which bills don’t get paid?  The Treasury Department decides.  One open question is how sophisticated its computers are.  Can they, say, pay every government employee below a certain pay grade and no one above?  Can they sent out checks to Social Security recipients for 60% of their entitlements?  Can they do the same with all defense contractors?

The choices Treasury might have to make would all be intensely political.  …don’t pay Congress, but pay the administration and the courts?

From an investor’s point of view, however, no matter where the cuts come, they would represent an immense fiscal contraction.  Whether cuts happened by accident or design, the damage to the economy would be substantial.

I don’t think that stock prices, either in the US or the rest of the world, contain even the slightest discount for the possibility that this could actually occur.

Why the current weakness in stocks?

I think it’s mostly uncertainty.  Worries about a possible economic contraction are causing companies and state and local governments to put spending plans on hold.  Citizens who rely on Social Security or unemployment benefits are also likely conserving, to the extent they can.

I also think that some investors are looking back to the TARP debate, when it took a plunge in the stock market to persuade congress to vote to prevent the domestic financial system from failing.  So they’re raising funds on the idea that the same pattern will recur.  I suspect, however, that in the convoluted way that Wall Street minds work, other investors are taking the contrary position.  They’re saying to themselves that the obvious pattern is the TARP episode; therefore, that’s the least likely outcome in the present situation.

Who knows what will actually happen?  The only thing I’m confident of is that congress would come under intense pressure to act if the flow of money from Washington were cut dramatically.  A partial government shutdown might also lead to substantial turnover in congress in the 2012 election.  Therefore, I think a possible period of shutdown would be very short.