Debt ceiling: Just do it

@CNNMoney June 27, 2011: 12:09 PM ET
The debt ceiling fight is not the last chance to broker an agreement on debt reduction. At least it shouldn't be.

The debt ceiling fight is not the last chance to broker an agreement on debt reduction. At least it shouldn't be.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Warnings from all three credit ratings agencies didn't do it. Seven weeks of talks among lawmakers didn't do it. Maybe President Obama's talks with Capitol Hill brass will do it.

But as of now, there's still no debt-reduction deal. And many lawmakers are still demanding one in exchange for their vote to increase the debt ceiling.

Here's an idea: Even if they can't come up with a deal by Aug. 2, lawmakers should raise the debt ceiling anyway. Then they should make a pot of coffee and go back to hammering out a debt-reduction plan.

Fiscal responsibility isn't a one-off proposition; it's an ongoing process.

If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2 -- the day when the Treasury Department estimates it will no longer be able to pay all the country's bills -- any number of damaging and utterly preventable scenarios could occur.

Deadbeat nation: For starters, the United States would look ridiculous. The debt ceiling needs to be raised because of obligations that Congresses past and present chose to incur.

Not raising the ceiling would signal to the world that Americans are willfully choosing not to pay their bills. The message won't be "We can't pay." It will be "We could pay, but we've decided not to. Sorry."

Market mayhem: To date, investors have been trading on the assumption -- the rock-solid belief, actually -- that there is just no way Congress would fail to raise the debt ceiling in time.

If Congress dashes those expectations, no one can know exactly how the markets will react. But most think markets will react, and not well.

Some bond experts expect that contrary to popular belief, Treasury rates won't rise but stocks may tank. In other words, there will be a move out of risk-based assets and a flight to safety in bonds.

Bond experts to Congress: Don't mess it up

So interest rates may stay low, but Americans' investments get whacked.

Or, Treasury yields could become volatile and start to climb as investors smell political instability in Washington. That would push the cost of U.S. debt higher.

Hopping mad republic: If Treasury is technically and legally able to prioritize the payment of interest to bond investors, the country may avoid the kind of default that would trigger rating downgrades.

A growing number of lawmakers say that it's OK not to raise the debt ceiling as long as Treasury continues to make payments to bondholders.

But that doesn't mean there wouldn't be seriously negative consequences.

"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," former Congressional Budget Office Donald Marron wrote in a recent op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor.

That could hurt the economy, which is still trying to find its sea legs, and won't do much for the country's mood.

Damaged reputation: Even if bond investors continue to be paid, investors and credit rating agencies won't take it lightly when Treasury has to delay payments to others.

Such delayed payments -- and the public anger that would result -- could cause investors to worry that even if they're getting paid today, tomorrow may be another story. And they could trade on that concern, even if it's unfounded. That, in turn, could cause interest rates to rise.

Fitch Ratings Agency said it would put the country on "Ratings Watch Negative" in such a scenario.

"Extensive payment arrears to suppliers of goods and services to the government ... would damage perceptions of U.S. sovereign creditworthiness and signal growing financial distress," the agency said in a recent report.

The S&P already has already downgraded its credit outlook on the United States to "negative" from "stable." And Moody's is considering doing the same.

Downright default: This is the very worst and still least likely of outcomes, because most believe that there's no way the U.S. government would not pay its bondholders.

But if they don't raise the ceiling, lawmakers would raise the chance that those bondholders don't get paid over time.

Debt ceiling: What you need to know

That could theoretically happen if the Treasury a) is somehow not able to prioritize payments to bondholders; or b) has to pay out more to bondholders than it has coming in on any given day.

On some days Treasury brings in more money than it has to pay out. And on some days it doesn't. But on average, the United States comes up short by about $125 billion every month.

To cut that much spending or raise that much extra in tax revenue overnight would hobble the U.S. economy and very likely de-stabilize world markets.

A U.S. default would be catastrophic, influential bond investor Mohamed El-Erian said Sunday on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS."

His advice to Congress? Raise the ceiling, even if you can't complete a debt-reduction deal in time.

"If ... you're going to kick the can down the road, kick the can rather than face something that could be catastrophic in terms of legal contracts being triggered," said El-Erian, CEO of PIMCO. To top of page

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