Debt Ceiling, Here We Come (Again)

Earlier this week, Ryan Craft and I went to Washington DC for a full day of presentations put on by Macroeconomic Advisors.

We heard from some of the country’s top economists, including the Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors (who also happened to be Hollywood superstar Matt Damon’s freshman roommate at Harvard).

While I plan to share some of what we learned in the coming weeks, I thought I would start with what I found more surprising than anything else: we could very well be headed towards another political showdown about the debt ceiling.

Back in 2011, the political standoff was so acutely bad that Standard & Poor’s saw fit to lower the country’s credit rating from AAA to AA+.

While being cut from outstanding to excellent isn’t the worst thing in the world, it was embarrassing for the U.S. and created unnecessary turmoil, especially in the stock market, which fell five to seven percent depending on the index.

In 2013, the issue emerged again when the debt ceiling that was agreed upon in 2011 was about to be breached and the government had to shut down for 16 days.

The market and political fallout was so damaging that I naïvely assumed that we wouldn’t run into this issue again, but terms like ‘sequestration’ and ‘fiscal cliff’ are back as the government is set to hit the debt ceiling in October.

As usual, I have no interest in taking sides in a political debate; I simply thought it would be a good idea to point out what may be coming up in the headlines in the coming days.

Perhaps we avoid another brouhaha and politicians come to their senses and do what needs to be done.  We have enough going on between the slowdown in China (and other emerging markets) and the uncertainty about the timing of Fed liftoff.  We don’t need to manufacture other problems.

While a political standoff would certainly lead to additional market volatility, I think it’s useful to remember that we did this in 2011 and 2013 and the S&P 500 gained 2.11 and 32.39 percent respectively.  If you’re like me, it’s possible that you forgot the whole thing even though I followed it very closely at the time.

More importantly, though, I just don’t think that anyone wants to default on the debt.  As I’ve pointed out before, we are just one of six countries that has never defaulted and I sincerely believe that no one wants to be responsible for tarnishing our unblemished record.