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Negative Market Reaction to Debt Ceiling Fight

Three things are wrong with the continuing insistence by the Republican Congressional leadership and a number of potential GOP presidential candidates that the financial markets will not react negatively if the existing federal debt ceiling is not increased by Aug. 2, the date that the U.S. Treasury says the government’s cash situation will become critical.

First, it’s not at all clear that GOP Congressional leaders really believe what they are saying. One of the back stories to last week’s scam of a debate in the House on a “clean” debt ceiling bill was that the leadership apparently went out of its way to let the financial world know in advance that the vote was nothing more than political theater and shouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s the Washington version of the hedging that’s typical on Wall Street. It’s also ample evidence that the leadership was worried enough about a negative reaction from investors that it needed to reassure them in advance about what was happening and what it meant. That’s not a vote of confidence in the hold-the-debt-ceiling-hostage strategy that we keep being told will not have a negative impact on interest rates, market psychology, stock prices or economic growth.

Second, the leadership and the candidates don’t seem to realize or be able to admit that the White House is in control of many of the levers that will affect the markets. Administration officials, not the Congressional leadership, will determine how to deal with a cash shortage, and Wall Street is much more likely to react to the Treasury’s decisions than to political hyperbole, demagoguery and attempted spin. Try to imagine the virtually immediate impact on the stock price of government contractors if the administration announces on Aug. 2 that money owed to those companies will be paid after 120 days instead of 30, and you start to get a sense of how much the White House rather than Congressional Republicans are in control of the situation.

Third, in spite of all the GOP protestations to the contrary, there are actually a number of important signs that capital markets have already begun to react disapprovingly to the debt ceiling impasse and that the economy is starting to feel the negative effects.

It started in mid-April when Standard & Poor’s, one of the top three credit rating agencies, revised its outlook on the rating for U.S. debt to “negative.” Much of the reporting about S&P’s changed outlook was about the size of the deficit, but a closer look shows that S&P expressed little doubt about the United States’ ability to pay its debts. Its main concern was over the government’s “willingness to pay,” or its ability to reach the political consensus needed to make timely payments. The fight over increasing the debt ceiling, which raises questions about the government’s willingness to pay existing obligations, had to weigh heavily on S&P’s analysis, especially because the United States is having no problem borrowing and could easily meet its obligations by doing so.

The negative market reaction continued last week when Moody’s, another of the three top rating agencies, warned it was considering a downgrade of the federal government’s credit rating. Moody’s explicitly blamed the debt ceiling fight: The rating agency said the nation’s rating could be lowered if the debt ceiling is not raised “in coming weeks,” and it cited “the heightened polarization over the debt limit” as one of the primary reasons for its thinking.

In other words, and completely contrary to what GOP leaders are saying, two major financial market participants are warning that there will be a Wall Street-related price to pay if the debt ceiling is not raised as needed.

The best indication of all that the market has already started reacting negatively is the current trading of credit default swaps on U.S. debt. As of late May, the number of CDS contracts — essentially insurance policies on the possibility of a default — had risen by 82 percent. Equally as important, the cost of a CDS — the best indication of how much riskier U.S. debt has become — rose by more than 35 percent from April to May. Last week I spoke to a number of people who calculate such things for a living, and they said this change means that the interest rate the U.S. government has to pay has already increased by as much as 40 basis points compared with what it otherwise would be. This means higher federal borrowing costs and deficits, and overall higher interest rates on everything from car loans to mortgages to credit cards.

Except when something unexpected occurs, the initial changes in market psychology and behavior start with just a few investors who act either because they are more or less risk averse, have better information, or are smarter. That means there are usually small signs of change before a market tsunami hits. In this case, there is now clear evidence that the uncertainty over the federal debt ceiling is already having the negative impact on financial markets that the Republican leadership has said will not occur. Just because it may not yet be obvious to everyone doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”