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  • Stephen James Mitchell

Growing Concerns as US Debt Ceiling Deadline Approaches

US Debt Ceiling
US Debt Ceiling

The approaching deadline for the US debt ceiling has raised concerns, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Without an extension approved by Congress, the US treasury could face difficulties starting in June, when approximately $100 billion of Medicare payments are due. Republicans see an opportunity to leverage spending cuts against the Democrats. However, historical patterns suggest that an agreement will likely be reached.

The Issue at Hand

The debt ceiling refers to a law that sets a limit on the amount the US government can borrow to cover its expenses. Periodically, Congress votes to raise or suspend the ceiling, allowing the government to borrow more. With recent substantial spending commitments in government bills like the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS & Science Act, spending surpassed the cap of $31.4 trillion in January. Special measures have been taken to ensure that the government can continue meeting its financial obligations.

Now, the situation has reached a critical point. From June onwards, the government will struggle to fulfill its various financial obligations, although the exact date depends on the amount of tax revenue collected in the coming weeks. Typically, raising the ceiling is a routine matter for Congress. However, during times of polarized politics and with Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, it has become a political bargaining chip. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recently suggested using the threat of default as leverage to encourage Democrats to accept spending cuts. On April 26, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill that would raise the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion but with the condition of $4.8 trillion in budget cuts over the next decade. House leader Kevin McCarthy has presented the bill as an opening offer to strike a deal with the Democrats. In contrast, President Biden has insisted that raising the debt ceiling should not be contingent on any conditions.

This is not the first time the US has faced a debt ceiling crisis. In 2011, the government reached a critical point just hours before the deadline, ultimately announcing a compromise deal that included $900 billion in spending cuts over a ten-year period.

Further Complications

Adding to the complexity, President Biden is also negotiating the Federal Budget simultaneously. Until that budget is agreed upon, it is challenging to determine the necessary level of debt and, therefore, the exact amount of the debt ceiling.

Is the US debt ceiling a cause for Concern

While most analysts consider a US government default to be a low-probability event, it would pose significant problems for financial markets. The US holds the world's largest external debt, with approximately $500 billion in US treasuries traded daily. A deliberate default would send shockwaves through the financial system. However, the intricacies of such an event make it an unviable scenario for long-term investors.

For instance, if such a scenario were to unfold, it would impact government spending, potentially leading to delays in social security payments and government employee salaries, which would directly impact the economy. However, at this stage, it is unclear which debt payments the government would prioritize, making it difficult to assess which sectors of the economy would be most affected. Risk assets such as equities and corporate debt are likely to experience negative effects. In a worst-case scenario, Moody's Analytics estimates that a "prolonged breach" could cause stock prices to drop by nearly one-fifth and reduce economic activity by over 4%.

Ironically, the impact on US government debt, which is typically viewed as one of the safest assets in the global financial system, would likely be mixed. A default could lead to volatility and a temporary surge in bond yields as investors sell off US treasuries. However, after the initial shock, the Federal Reserve might need to aggressively lower interest rates as US economic activity slows down, thereby increasing the attractiveness of existing bonds. Treasuries could also experience increased demand due to their status as safe-haven assets during volatile times.

Moderate Market Reaction

In the short term, the debt ceiling issues are expected to raise the risk premium applied to shorter-dated US treasuries. Some signs of this are already apparent, with traders beginning to incorporate some of the associated risks into the prices of short-dated US bonds. The 2011 standoff resulted in a downgrade of the US credit rating, and Fitch has warned that a temporary default this time could lead to another downgrade.

However, equity markets have remained stable, and there is currently no sign of panic.

The Likely Outcome

Although the risks associated with a default are significant, it is viewed as a low-probability event. The situation is expected to be resolved, and two factors suggest a positive outcome. Firstly, unlike recent defaults witnessed in emerging economies, the US has the ability to repay its debt.

Secondly, neither political party benefits from a catastrophic default, especially with the 2024 Presidential Election on the horizon. Therefore, it is expected that both a budget deal and a higher debt ceiling will be reached. In the past, US political parties have used the debt ceiling as a negotiation tactic to secure concessions, often waiting until the last minute to gain the most leverage.

Any deal that emerges may prioritize kicking the can down the road rather than addressing long-term issues. A short-term extension would provide Congress with more time to agree on spending cuts, allowing the budget to be negotiated separately. This would provide greater clarity on the necessary level of debt.

The Biden Administration may be compelled to scale back some of its more ambitious spending plans, including those related to the clean energy transition. President Biden has already proposed rescinding billions of unspent COVID-19 funding, but the Republicans have not been specific about the cuts they desire.

The next few weeks are likely to be challenging for the US government, as each side seeks to gain maximum political advantage from the standoff. However, with the Presidential Election on the horizon, neither party wants to be held responsible for a US default.

A meeting between President Biden and House Speaker McCarthy on May 16 yielded positive results, as the two agreed to engage in more intensive negotiations. Although McCarthy acknowledged the significant differences between their positions, he expressed optimism that a deal could be reached by the end of the week.


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