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The U.S. Debt Ceiling: The How, Why and What Could Happen?

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The deadline for delivering a deal to allow the U.S. to continue to borrow and spend, August 2nd, is approaching. Mirroring issues in the EU, a problem of debt cannot be solved by yet more debt. With the threat of a downgrade looming, any rise in interest rates could make the situation worse, hitting the tax payer and U.S. exporters. Moreover, an increase in this 'benchmark' rate could impact the UK and hurt our property market, and a weaker dollar could result in job losses in our export sector. Further afield, with China the largest holder of U.S. debt, the concern could spread globally towards countries relied upon to drive future growth. But failing to raise the ceiling isn't an option and may cause an eventual default further down the line. Therefore, a deal will be struck and a balance found between demands for more spending cuts and aspirations for tax increases.

The U.S. has 'maxed out its credit card'
The U.S. debt 'ceiling' is the maximum amount of bonds the US can issue, i.e. the maximum amount the US can borrow to finance its spending. The limit is currently set at $14.3tn but with the country spending approximately $120bn more than it takes in terms of revenue each month, after funding its participation in 2 world wars, rescuing the financial system post-Lehmans and pumping the economy with new capital to boost economic growth, the debt limit was reached on May 16. Put another way, the U.S. has maxed out its credit card.

The issue echoes EU troubles: Debt cannot solve the problem of debt
Instigated in 1917, the debt ceiling has in fact been raised 74 times since 1962 alone. It should be noted; raising the limit does not increase fiscal spending but merely allows current obligations to be met and annual deficits to be financed. Nevertheless, in the current environment, with sovereign debt crises in Europe, investors and rating agencies are becoming acutely aware that cannot solve a problem of debt with more debt and the extent to which the ceiling would have to be expanded is troublesome. Obama's proposed budget will require a ~$2.2tn hike just to meet next year's obligations.

A lose-lose situation could hit tax payers and U.S. exporters
Even if the ceiling is raised, there are other issues to tackle. S&P in April threatened reduce the credit rating of U.S. debt. The importance of this threat should not be underestimated. With a 'AAA' status and 'stable' outlook', any downgrade would threaten its role as the safest place to store savings. To retain their position, the U.S. needs to address how it will not only plug this short-term gap, but also meet longer-term challenges. A hit to confidence would increase the rate of interest demanded by investors to compensate for a higher perceived risk of loss. This would increase borrowing costs for the U.S., worsening their debt burden and further limiting the amount of new debt they would be able to issue. It has been estimated that even an increase of 25 basis points could cost tax payers $500m more per month. With less demand for U.S. treasuries, there would be less demand for the dollar to fund these transactions, making the products the country exports more expensive abroad and again hitting their balance sheet.

The issue could hit the East and future global growth
In its extreme, uncertainty could spark another financial crisis as well as put the dollar's status as the world reserve currency at risk. (Interestingly, a McKinsey investigation reported less than 20% of business executives expect its dominance to continue to 2025). For this isn't an isolated incidence. Dollar-denominated U.S. debt is held world-wide (especially $1.1tn by China), spreading the problem towards the very countries many are lauding as growth drivers of the future.

UK jobs, home prices and recovery could be hit
There could be dire consequences felt even in the UK. The U.S. is our largest export partner, spending $50bn for our products last year alone. A weaker dollar would damage American buying power, making these products more expensive and damaging demand. This would cause companies producing these goods to suffer and jobs would be lost. Furthermore, if fears over the ability of the U.S. government to repay its debts led to investors demanding more to lend to the UK government, mortgage rates would become more onerous and it could be harder for buyers to purchase a property. With less investors able to buy and therefore lower demand, sellers may be forced to lower asking prices to get a sale.

Failing to raise the ceiling wouldn't cause an immediate but an eventual default
In the near-term, the U.S. could continue to function. Failing to be able to increase borrowing would necessitate spending cuts: to military salaries, social security, medicare and unemployment benefits. Furthermore, some of their debt could be rolled over so long as the overall amount of treasuries outstanding didn't rise. However, this is unsustainable in the medium to longer-term and would lead to an eventual default.

With too much at stake a deal is likely to be reached
The issue is currently being used as a negotiating chip by Republicans to get deeper cuts and long-term reforms whilst refusing to raise taxes, versus the White House aiming to cap tax exemptions and reduce 'inequalities' benefitting big business. Nevertheless, with such serious ramifications possible, it is unlikely a deal will not be struck.