Great news: Downgrade could come as soon as Friday

Ed Morrissey

Barack Obama has spent the last several weeks warning that a failure to raise the debt ceiling by the “drop-dead date” of August 2nd would cause a ruinous downgrade of Treasury bonds and an economic disaster for the US.  However, the downgrade may come sooner than that, because the debt ceiling is actually a secondary condition to the ratings agencies.  The problem, as they see it, is not that America can’t pay its debts next month, but that America has grown its debt to such a degree that we can’t pay them in the long run without serious restructuring of the federal government — and this administration refuses to consider it:

Only seven days stand between the U.S. and the effects of a credit default. But a downgrade of the nation’s stellar AAA credit rating seems a lot more likely, and a lot sooner.

The White House had been alerted repeatedly over the past month by rating agencies that without a strong, long-term plan to restructure the country’s debt, they would lower America’s credit rating as soon as this Friday, according to two officials familiar with the process. The White House was warned that the deal would have to be significant—and not a short-term fix over the next few days to avoid a credit drop. …

Some analysts have given up hope for the U.S. maintaining its rating. “We’re at a point that the odds of having a downgrade make it pretty much inevitable,” says Peter Cohan, a financial analyst and head of venture capital firm Peter S. Cohan and Associates. “I see a downgrade as being inevitable. The question is whether markets see that as being significant.”

With so many moving parts in the global economy, it’s difficult to measure the precise impact of a U.S. credit downgrade on the global economy. One specific effect would be a mass sell-back of U.S. bonds. Billions of dollars in outstanding bonds are held by people, countries, and agencies that only hold bonds guaranteed by AAA sellers. All of those would likely move immediately to sell in the wake of a credit downgrade, or change internal policies to retain the bonds. The ratings of all viable U.S. institutions, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, would fall as well, potentially increasing mortgage-interest rates and borrowing costs on other loans.

So it’s not the debt ceiling that’s triggering a potential ratings change — it’s the trajectory of debt generated by the federal government.  This explains why the White House abandoned its “clean debt-ceiling increase” demand so early in the process.  It wouldn’t have done anything to avoid a downgrade anyway.

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Related: “80% Chance” By Friday of the Largest Municipal Bankruptcy in U.S.

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