Financial markets are bracing for U.S. debt-ceiling talks to come down to the wire, putting the U.S. government dangerously close to a default, as the long Memorial Day weekend approaches.
Stocks closed lower Wednesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average
posting a fourth straight session of declines, leaving the blue-chip index down 1.1% on the year, according to FactSet. The S&P 500 index
has been stuck in a range below 4,200 for weeks.
After the bell, Fitch Ratings placed the U.S. Triple-A credit ratings on “ratings watch negative,” pointing to “brinkmanship” over the debt ceiling.
The brunt of the selloff has been in Treasury bills, especially those maturing around June 1, or the “X-date,” when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen expects the U.S. to no longer have enough funds to pay all its bills. Those securities were at yields north of 7%, or roughly what higher-quality junk bonds fetch.
“Which is insane,” said Judith Raneri, a senior portfolio manager at the Gabelli U.S. Treasury Money Market Fund. “I’m in the camp that truly feels they are going to reach a decision,” she said of the debt-ceiling standoff. “Each party is going to have to give a little. Then we can move on.”
But before then, here are three things to know about markets and the debt-ceiling as the Memorial Day weekend draws closer:
1. Drop-dead date
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday said a divided Washington would still come to an agreement, adding that he “wouldn’t scare the markets in any shape or form.”
He also said that lawmakers who might like to travel ahead of the Memorial Day weekend will need to be prepared to return to Washington to vote on the debt limit.
In a sign that investors don’t expect a tidy resolution to the current $31.4 billion debt-limit soon, yields on 1-month Treasury bills
were near 5.71% Wednesday, up from around 0.50% a year ago, according to FactSet.
“Until they come to an agreement, and we have some clarity, it’s not only in Treasurys and equities, but every other sector of the economy that is going to be impacted,” Raneri said.
In 2011, it took two days after a debt-ceiling deal reached over the weekend became law. But to avoid a potential June 1 default, the drop-dead date for a new agreement was pegged as Sunday, May 28.
While a full-blown U.S. government default could spark mayhem in global financial markets, MarketWatch’s Andrew Keshner writes that even a brief default could tip an already fragile economy into a mild recession.
2. Lessons from 1979 payment blip
There may be a precedent for how the Treasury might handle missed interest payments of maturing Treasury bills caught in the eye of a debt-ceiling breach, according to the Wells Fargo Investment Institute.
A technical glitch in 1979 caused a “blip” in payment processing that caused some delays in interest payments on some Treasury bills. Legal battles and new legislation followed, providing a potential pathway to making investors whole for any delayed payments in June, strategist said in a client note Wednesday.
Raneri at Gabelli Funds said she’s been limiting exposure to Treasury bills with a maturity around the X-date, while favoring two-month and three-month bill auctions. “I think a lot of money-market funds are avoiding the short end of the curve because of this concern.”
3. U.S. still has low interest payments
The U.S. hit its current borrowing limit in January, and has been running down its cash account, with Fitch Ratings pegging its balance at around $70 billion as of Wednesday.
While a new debt limit would mean borrowing from the public at much higher rates than in the past few years, Oxford Economic pegged federal interest payments as a share of gross domestic product at 1.9% in 2022, lower than the 3% in the early 1990s, “even though the level of debt is significantly higher.”
The Treasury is expected to release a deluge of Treasury bill issuance once a deal on the borrowing limit is reached. Strategists expect that rates would need to exceed the roughly 5% rate offered by the Federal Reserve’s popular reverse repo facility to entice funds marked there overnight into shorter-term Treasury debt.
Ryan Sweet, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, said “higher rates this year will increase interest payments as a share of GDP, but that share won’t approach the tipping point where the government is unable to finance its debt, and higher interest payments aren’t a reason to not raise the debt ceiling,” in a Wednesday client note.
As Memorial Day weekend approaches, stock markets are keeping an eye on an impasse in Washington that could force the government to default on its debt. Investors and analysts alike are paying close attention to the debt-ceiling fight, as it has the potential to cause considerable damage to markets. Here are three key things to know about markets and the debt-ceiling fight.
First, the federal government is obligated to raise the debt ceiling by late-July or they may default on their debt and cause a government shutdown. Congress has usually agreed to raise the debt ceiling in order to prevent a default, though it is currently at loggerheads with the President over policies such as the proposed cap on discretionary spending and a rollback of some environmental regulations. If an agreement cannot be reached before the July deadline, the government may default on its debt, resulting in a catastrophic economic shock.
Second, it is important to remember that the U.S. stock markets are heavily dependent on the government’s financial situation. In recent weeks, we have seen investors move away from stocks and into bonds as uncertainty over the debt ceiling has grown. This suggests that if the government is unable to reach an agreement, there could be significant losses in the stock market due to investors fleeing to safety.
Third, it is important to note that the market impact of the debt-ceiling impasse will depend largely on how the government responds. If a timely and sensible agreement is reached which avoids a government default, markets may return to normal relatively quickly. However, if the government defaults and faces the risk of a severe economic shock, the consequences could be far-reaching and long-lasting.
Overall, it is clear that the debt-ceiling fight is one of the key issues facing markets as Memorial Day weekend approaches. With no clear timeline for an agreement in sight, markets remain on edge, with investors keeping a close eye on any news developments.