NEW YORK -- As politicians fight over the federal debt ceiling, Americans could start feeling the consequences of Congressional gridlock even before that limit is hit.
Moody's Investors Service warned on Thursday that if lawmakers have not made progress in negotiations to raise the debt limit by mid-July, the ratings agency plans to reassess the nation's sterling credit rating for a possible downgrade. The warning, coming after Standard & Poor's lowered its outlook on U.S. debt to "negative" in April, underscores that the current political stalemate in Washington has already begun to dampen the nation's economic prospects.
A downgrade from Moody's on U.S. debt, or even the imminent threat of one, could itself begin to choke the economic processes that still have not fully recovered from the Great Recession. It would imply that a credit default is possible, likely causing yields on Treasury debt to rise and pushing up interest rates across the board.
"It would be an earth-shattering event," said Scott Anderson, senior economist at Wells Fargo. "It's taken as a given that U.S. Treasuries are a safe asset. Once you question that assumption, it shakes the foundations of global finance, and the way it's been established over the last 50 years."
Federal lawmakers have been locked in a debate over raising the nation's legal borrowing limit, as the vote to allow the government to fund its existing obligations has been tied to a more controversial legislative agenda. Congressional Republicans insist they will not vote to raise the limit without also achieving measures to reduce the federal deficit, while economic officials in the Obama administration warn that procrastination on the debt ceiling vote could have disastrous consequences.
The country could be forced to default if the limit is not raised by August 2, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said in a letter to Congress last month.
But the economic pain could begin before that date. The risk of a default by the U.S. government has risen, Moody's Investors Service said in a note posted to its website. Moody's incorporates these considerations into its credit ratings, which are treated by many investors as authoritative assessments of credit quality. Investors use these ratings in their decisions to buy or sell a security.
The country will keep its top rating if the government does not default, Moody's said. But if the agency determines there isn't significant progress on a deal by mid-July, it will initiate the process that could lead to a downgrade, the agency said in the release.
"Although Moody's fully expected political wrangling prior to an increase in the statutory debt limit, the degree of entrenchment into conflicting positions has exceeded expectations," the note reads. "The heightened polarization over the debt limit has increased the odds of a short-lived default."
Moody's added that its long-term assessment would also depend on lawmakers' hammering out a plan to reduce the federal deficit. S&P sounded a similar note in April, saying it could downgrade U.S. credit if lawmakers don't settle on a plan to reduce the deficit and debt by 2013.
Investor confidence in Treasury debt began to show cracks on Thursday. Yields on U.S. debt have been low for the past several months even as politicians fight over the debt limit, suggesting that investors believe the government will not ultimately default. But yields edged up on Thursday as the value of the debt fell.
The 10-year Treasury note was yielding nearly 3.03 percent on Thursday, after closing on Wednesday at 2.95 percent. Rising interest rates suggest investors perceive the debt as risky, demanding higher payment in compensation for this lack of safety.
As congressional negotiations drag on, this trend in bond markets could continue, said Anderson, the Wells Fargo economist. Higher Treasury rates would make borrowing more expensive for businesses and individual Americans. Especially in light of Friday's dismal jobs report, any further economic strain should be avoided, Anderson said.
"The markets would start pricing in the possibility of default even before the drop-dead deadline," he said. "We can't deal with another shock."