NEW YORK — Stocks fell Monday as Wall Street worried that a budget fight in Washington could lead to an event far worse for the economy_ a failure to raise the nation's borrowing limit.
Investors pulled back from stocks as a budget standoff between Republicans and Democrats in Congress threatened to push the government into a partial shutdown for the first time in 17 years. Lawmakers have until midnight EDT to reach a budget deal that would keep government in full operation.
There is a simple reason why the budget battle – and, more importantly, an upcoming fight over the debt ceiling – are so crucial: the credit of the United States is the bedrock that nearly every other investment is built upon, largely due to the assumption that the nation will always pay its debts.
"The concern is government has become so polarized that if it cannot pass (a budget), there's a greater chance that the debt ceiling battle will go to the brink or possibly lead to a default," said Alec Young, global equity strategist with S&P Capital IQ.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 128.57 points, or 0.8 percent, to close at 15,129.67. The Standard & Poor's 500 slid 10.20 points, or 0.6 percent, to 1,681.55 and the Nasdaq composite dropped 10.12 points, or 0.3 percent, to 3,771.48.
Monday's decline adds to what has been eventful September for investors. Stocks hit an all-time high on Sept. 18 after the Federal Reserve voted to keep up its economic stimulus program. But that enthusiasm vanished as Wall Street began to worry that the political bickering between Democrats and Republicans would lead to a government shutdown and crisis over the debt ceiling.
Even with the worries about a shutdown and debt ceiling, investors are still optimistic about the long-term health of the U.S. economy. The S&P 500 index rose 3 percent in September and is up 18 percent for the year.
With September behind them, investors now head into a worrisome October.
A brief shutdown wouldn't hit the economy and stock market hard. But a prolonged one, lasting two weeks, could lower the annual growth rate for the economy by 0.3 percentage point, according to a report by Macroeconomic Advisers. If a shutdown were to last the entire month, it could cut the annual growth rate by 0.7 percentage point. That is because hundreds of thousands of federal workers would go without a paycheck.
"You're putting a lot of people, at least temporarily, out of work and out of pay, and that will affect spending," said Kathy Jones, vice president of fixed income strategy at Charles Schwab. "It slows down activity on companies that depend on federal contracts."
Some investors think a shutdown could be a positive event in the long-term. The political pressure could force politicians to get down to business and negotiate – particularly on the issue of the debt ceiling.
"This may be good thing in the long run because it may lead to compromise," said J.J. Kinahan, chief strategist at TD Ameritrade.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said last week that the government would run out of borrowing authority by roughly Oct. 17. The last time the debt ceiling issue came up in August 2011, it led to Standard & Poor's downgrading the United States' credit rating. The Dow went through nearly three weeks of nauseating triple-digits moves almost daily.
"This sort of political brinkmanship is the dominant reason (the United States' credit) rating is no longer `AAA,'" Standard & Poor's analysts Marie Cavanaugh and John Chambers wrote in a note to investors Monday.
If domestic and foreign investors begin to question whether the U.S. will pay its debts, it could throw every other investment out of alignment.
"It's a threat to the center of the global financial system," said Jake Lowery, portfolio manager at ING U.S. Investment Management.
Despite fears of default, the bond market was fairly quiet Monday. The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note eased to 2.62 percent from 2.63 percent late Friday. Bond investors are in a wait-and-see mode.
They can deal with a government shutdown. However, if the political dysfunction becomes worrisome enough that it raises questions about the debt ceiling, "it might be more difficult for the bond market to absorb that," Lowery said.
_AP Markets Writer Steve Rothwell contributed to this report from New York.
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The Deficit Has Grown Mostly Because Of The Recession
The deficit has ballooned not because of specific spending measures, but <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?s[id]=FYFSD" target="_hplink">because of the recession</a>. <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals" target="_hplink">The deficit more than doubled</a> between 2008 and 2009, as the economy was in free fall, since laid-off workers paid less in taxes and needed more benefits. The deficit then shrank in 2010 and 2011.
The Stimulus Cost Much Less Than Bush's Wars, Tax Cuts
Republicans frequently have blamed <a href="http://projects.nytimes.com/44th_president/stimulus" target="_hplink">the $787 billion stimulus</a> for the national debt, but, when all government spending is taken into account, the stimulus frankly wasn't that big. In contrast, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/29/cost-of-war-iraq-afghanistan_n_887084.html" target="_hplink">the U.S. will have spent nearly $4 trillion</a> on wars in the Middle East by the time those conflicts end, according to a recent report by Brown University. <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/revisiting-the-cost-of-the-bush-tax-cuts/2011/05/09/AFxTFtbG_blog.html" target="_hplink">The Bush tax cuts have cost nearly $1.3 trillion</a> over 10 years.
The Deficit Grew Under George W. Bush
When George W. Bush took office, <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals" target="_hplink">the federal government was running a surplus</a> of $86 billion. When he left, that had turned into a $642 billion deficit.
The Deficit Is Shrinking
<a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals" target="_hplink">Last year's federal budget deficit</a> was 12 percent lower than in 2009, according to the Office of Management and Budget.<a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals" target="_hplink">The deficit is projected to shrink</a> even more over the next several years.
Investors Are Paying Us To Borrow Money
<a href="http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/data-chart-center/interest-rates/Pages/TextView.aspx?data=realyield" target="_hplink">The interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds</a> is <em>negative</em>, according to the Treasury Department. Investors are even paying us for 30-year Treasury bonds, when adjusted for inflation.
Investors Are Not Running Away
<a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/niall-ferguson-has-been-wrong-on-economics-2012-8" target="_hplink">Conservative commentators</a> have been warning for years that investors will run away from Treasury bonds because of the national debt. So far it's not happening. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/30/treasury-yield-record-low_n_1555975.html" target="_hplink">Interest rates on Treasury bonds</a> continue to hover at historic lows.
Health Care Reform Reduces The Deficit
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The U.S. Is Borrowing Less From China
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We Spend A Lot On Health Care
<a href="http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=1258" target="_hplink">Health insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, constituted 21 percent</a> of federal spending last year. In contrast, education constituted 2 percent of federal spending. Meanwhile, <a href="http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/08/19/2956609/middle-aged-blues-over-paul-ryans.html" target="_hplink">Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have promised not to change Medicare</a> for Americans age 55 and older.
Republicans May Want Large Deficits For Now
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