Bond markets

In the endless saga over US fiscal policy, attention has shifted from the closure of some parts of the government (which happened on Tuesday) to the possibility that the Treasury Department will reach the limit of its extraordinary measures to work around the debt ceiling on or around 17 October.

The negotiating tactics of the White House are now clear. They are painting the scenario in which the debt ceiling remains frozen as completely catastrophic, perhaps hoping that market disruptions will increase pressure on the Republicans to waive through the necessary legislation. Markets, however, have so far been reluctant to co-operate. (See this earlier blog.)

In a letter to Congress on 25 September, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew described the ensuing situation as “default by another name”, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has said that “there is no precedent for a default”.

Investors hate the word “default” but they need to be careful about its exact meaning here. Most observers, including the major investment banks, think it very unlikely that the US would ever choose to default on any payments due on its sovereign debt, even if the debt ceiling is left permanently unchanged after 17 October.

The government could, however, go into arrears on many of its normal payments after that date. This would have serious contractionary effects on the economy, and might lead credit agencies to downgrade their ratings on US sovereign debt. Read more