Fitch warns of potential US debt-ceiling showdown

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Investors this year have focused on business-friendly policies they expect to come from Washington. But Fitch Ratings has warned that a potential debt-ceiling debate may come into focus once again, highlighting the headaches Congress can still create for Wall Street.

An act of Congress in 2015 that temporarily suspended the country’s borrowing limit has taken spotlight off of the debt-ceiling debate, which has repeatedly roiled the markets in recent years.

However, the halt expires on March 15, according to Fitch. After that, the Treasury will need to take on what it calls extraordinary measures to cope with the statutory limit. But, it will ultimately fall on lawmakers to raise or suspend it.

If Congress fails to act, it could ultimately force the US into a technical default in which it misses a bond payment — an unprecedented move that would pose a serious problem for the $14tn US government bond market and likely ricochet more broadly.

“The US government debt limit will soon be in focus again, possibly leading to another round of needless economic and financial market uncertainty,” Fitch said.

As opposed to previous episodes in recent years, which have on numerous occasions sent shockwaves through the financial markets, the Republican party controls both chambers of Congress and the presidency. However, that may not be sufficient to stave off a battle.

“A quick resolution would support the notion that President Trump represents a transition to more effective and results-oriented leadership, and a shake-up of ‘business as usual’ in Washington,” Fitch said.

“But more probable is a repeat of previous debt limit confrontations and last-minute agreements, revealing sharp fiscal and other policy differences between Congress and the administration, and underscoring persistent weaknesses in US fiscal governance.”

The US holds a top-notch credit rating with Fitch and Moody’s Investors Service. But S&P Global stripped the country of its AAA standing in 2011 directly on the heels of a turbulent debt ceiling clash that ended with an 11th-hour deal.

US Treasuries are seen as a global haven asset, meaning the impact of a potential debt ceiling debacle could have consequences that cross the country’s border.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.