Trading Desk: Debt Ceiling Dread But Where Are The Rating Agencies?

I remember the last time the federal debt ceiling triggered a government shutdown and just about forced the Treasury to default on its obligations for the first time in history. Markets around the world shuddered.

But that time, the global credit rating agencies Moody and Standard & Poor’s were clearly paying close attention. S&P cut Treasury from the supreme AAA to AA+ and warned that additional cuts could be coming if we didn’t clean up our act.

No additional cuts actually came. Here we are, almost 12 years down the road . . . and both of the big agencies have a “stable” outlook on our government’s credit rating.

S&P hasn’t actually talked about the debt ceiling since mid-March, when they decided that the debate was really just for show. At that time, the statutory limit had already been breached, putting government spending on borrowed time.

Here’s what the people who weigh default risk said two months ago before shifting focus to other topics:

“Despite polarization, the executive and legislative branches of government have shown an ability to pass crucial laws based on last-minute compromises. This includes a long track record of raising or suspending the government’s statutory debt ceiling to permit timely payment of U.S. financial obligations. The rating and stable outlook assume this continues to be the case.”

Will it happen? S&P isn’t panicking. And Moody never cut its Treasury rating at all. Even today, “the other agency” considers our financial outlook stable and hasn’t officially commented in months.

I don’t think they’re scared to comment. I think they just don’t see high odds of a real default . . . or if it happens, they don’t see the global financial landscape changing much.

The Treasury remains one of the best places on the planet to park money. As we saw in 2011, any shock to the system will actually make other debt markets look even worse. Cash will flow toward relative quality.

The world as a whole becomes a little less stable and a little riskier. But you don’t need to be perfect in order to succeed in the long haul. You simply need to be a little less flawed than everyone else.

In the current economic environment, we look pretty good. Be thankful for that.

But play out the worst-case scenarios. Moody says that a prolonged debt ceiling breach would trigger $350 billion in instant spending cuts and an instant recession. GDP would fall about 4 percentage points across the following year. Unemployment would climb to 8% and the Fed would finally see an end to inflation.

The dollar holds up OK in this scenario. Stocks drop but recover. We get on with life in a slightly riskier world.

S&P, meanwhile, doesn’t even contemplate that outcome. As far as they’re concerned, it’s more important to watch the banks . . . and even the potential for contagious bank crashes is “limited for now.”

These are the companies bond buyers pay to weigh the risk of default. If they aren’t concerned, investors can take some comfort.

And if they should be concerned, they’re steering investors wrong. In that event, a default will sting global investors, but it will end the era of credit ratings and the agencies that produce them. After all, if the agencies get this one wrong, they’ll prove that there’s zero reason for them to exist.

But there’s something else to consider. In 2011, China got really noisy about the government’s budget problem. Back then, they held $1.2 trillion of our bonds, and like they say in the banking business, when someone owes you that much money, they’re actually your problem.

Now they hold “only” $1 trillion in Treasury debt and their economy has grown to the point where the bonds aren’t quite such a huge piece of their overall currency reserves. They’re extremely quiet about this.

Maybe they just don’t care. I’d care about $1 trillion on my balance sheet blowing up, no matter how big I am.

Or maybe they aren’t especially worried. Besides, the Fed itself owns $5 trillion in Treasury debt. They’re not squawking either.

If you see the Fed start buying bonds again, you’ll know they’re worried. Otherwise, this is business as usual in Washington. Nobody likes it but it’s a fact of life.