One week before the debt ceiling deadline, members of Congress have adjourned, while a handful of negotiators continue to search for a compromise solution to the impasse. Investors are holding their breath.
As many expected, myself included, the politicians are drawing out the drama and will continue to do so until the 11th hour. Both sides have stressed that there will be no default and the market has taken them at their word. Investors have bid up stocks this week in anticipation of a positive announcement.
This week, Fitch, one of the big three American credit agencies, has put the nation's debt on a negative credit watch. The agency warned that it may downgrade the U.S. AAA debt rating to AA+ over the debt ceiling fight. It cites the increased political partisanship that is hindering a resolution to the debt limit. In addition, they point to the failure of the U.S. to meaningfully tackle rising budget deficits and a ballooning debt burden.
This brings back to mind a similar situation in 2011. At the time, another big credit agency, Standard & Poor's, downgraded the nation's debt to AA+ for the same reasons, despite the two sides coming to a compromise and avoiding default.
Politicians from both sides denounced the move, as did the U.S. Treasury, to no avail. It still has not restored its' AAA rating. The agency said their downgrade reflected their view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges. That sounds about right to me, and if anything, the environment has worsened over the last 12 years.
Although I have never seen a published dollar amount of the cost to the nation and the taxpayer of that downgrade, I do know that the rating downgrade increased the U.S. government's cost of capital (interest, fees, and yields). The higher costs simply reflect the increased risk lenders are taking in buying our debt. Given the trillions of dollars we have borrowed over the last dozen years, we are talking billions and billions of dollars in extra costs. And here we are again in the same situation. Will Fitch follow Standard and Poor's lead and lower the rating? Time will tell.
Throughout the week, yields on bonds have risen in fear of default with the one-month, U.S. Treasury bills now yielding more than 6 percent. Three-, six- and nine-month U.S. Treasury bills are yielding between 5.31 percent to 5.39 percent. The U.S. dollar has shot up as well, and that combination has savaged precious metals and most other commodities.
Equities have fared much better — thanks to AI and 10 large-cap tech stocks. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been around for many years, but the idea has caught fire among traders and investors. Reminiscent of the Dot.Com boom (and bust), any stock that has even a whiff of exposure to AI has exploded higher. Nvidia, a semiconductor company that is at the forefront of chips needed in the AI space, announced spectacular earnings and even better guidance this week. The stock rose 25 percent overnight and carried the technology sectors along with it.
But underneath this hyped-up area, most equity sectors of the overall market were at best marking time while the debt negotiations continue. As I predicted, traders are reacting to every word and headline, moving markets up and down. The latest word out of Washington is that President Joe Biden and GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy are closing in on a deal.
Their idea is to produce a simple agreement with a few key top-line numbers for spending, including defense spending, and let lawmakers hash out the details through the normal appropriations process in the months ahead. That would dispense with a weighty, thousand-page bill that would require legislators to write, read and vote on all in a matter of days.
My belief for months is that a deal will get done and the market agrees, otherwise, the market averages would be a lot lower than they are right now.
The question to ask is what will happen after a deal is done? I expect markets will spike higher in a relief rally, but then what? The U.S. Treasury is expected to need to raise a lot of money in the form of new government debt sales in the weeks after an agreement. That should send interest rate yields higher and probably put pressure on the stock market. But let's just get through the next week first.
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at email@example.com.
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