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Debt ceiling revisited: The under-the-radar threat to U.S. stocks

Conventional wisdom holds that the chief risk to the high-flying U.S. stock market is "tapering," the potential cutback of the Federal Reserve's bond-buying program.

It's an understandable view, given how the Fed's monetary policy has propped up the country's economy for years by helping to keep long-term interest rates at ultra-low levels. But it's also wrong.

The greatest immediate hazard to stocks isn't the direction the six governors of the Federal Reserve will take. It's what the 535 members of Congress will do in the coming weeks when faced with two budgetary issues that ought to be routine – but will likely be anything but.

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The first issue is approving a federal budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, or at least a resolution that will keep the government open in its absence. The second is authorizing a new, higher number for the U.S. government's borrowing before Washington hits its debt ceiling, once again, possibly by mid-October. In the absence of such a vote, the U.S. must simply stop spending – and, in essence, default on its debt.

If this sounds familiar, it's because we went through a similar showdown two years ago, in the summer of 2011. Yet it's easy to forget now how that fiscal gridlock roiled the markets. In the first day of trading after Standard & Poor's downgraded U.S. debt in early August, the S&P 500 fell nearly 7 per cent. The day after, the index was nearly 19 per cent below the level of early July.

The rhetoric suggests this fiscal showdown could inflict similar damage.

Eighty House Republicans recently signed a letter urging their leadership to use any new government-funding bill to cut all necessary money for President Barack Obama's signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as Obamacare.

The Republican House leadership, it is said, does not support such a move. That's apparently because they prefer to make it part of the showdown over the debt ceiling. (The National Review, one of the U.S.'s leading conservative publications, reported Tuesday that Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, told Republicans they will be demanding a one-year delay of Obamacare in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling.)

Failing to raise the debt ceiling doesn't mean default, its opponents argue. The Treasury can just do a better job of "prioritizing," paying the creditors while axing other expenses.

In the absence of a higher debt ceiling, the U.S. could pay the interest on Treasury securities, and keep on footing the tab for Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, national defence and a handful of aid programs, according to the Bipartisan Policy Centre. But, starting Oct. 15, it won't be able to afford the salaries of other federal workers, or perform functions like road construction and air traffic control, or run the federal court system.

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Ted Yoho, the improbably named Republican representative from Florida, said this about a failure to raise the debt ceiling, according to a recording of one of his summertime town hall meetings leaked to the Huffington Post: "So they say that would rock the market, capital would leave, the stock market would crash … I think our credit rating would do better."

Better, I think, to take the U.S. Treasury's position that the markets will view the U.S. picking and choosing which bills to pay as an admission it simply can't pay them all. Deputy secretary Neil Wolin said during the last debt-ceiling showdown, in 2011, that it "would merely be default by another name."

That, however, is the view from the reality-based community, rather than the deeply irrational, anti-intellectual element that has hijacked the Republican Party and turned ordinary budgetary procedure into a partisan brawl.

The liberal economic writer Jonathan Chait recently wrote "the chaos and dysfunction have set in so deeply that Washington now lurches from crisis to crisis, and once-dull, keep-the-lights-on rituals of government procedure are transformed into white-knuckle dramas that threaten national or even global catastrophe."

And yet stocks seem to be priced as if Democrats, Republicans and President Obama will come together to work something out. There is great faith that the United States will overcome its challenges and take the right path in the end. Investors could suffer double-digit losses in the coming weeks if that faith is misplaced.

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About the Author
Business and investing reporter and columnist

A business journalist since 1994, David Milstead began writing for The Globe and Mail in 2009. During eight years at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colo., he individually or jointly won nine national awards from SABEW, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. He has also worked at the Wall Street Journal. More


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