Market Update (07-26-2011)

*** We believe communicating with our clients is of utmost importance, especially during turbulent times in the market. While we don’t claim to have a crystal ball on the future of any financial market at a given point in time, we do believe that keeping clients informed on why things are happening increases their comfort level and understanding. This post contains a message initially sent to clients with the debt ceiling fiasco on the horizon as part of that communication effort***

Given the press coverage around the debt limit issue, I thought it would be useful for you if I gave a quick update as to what’s going on. Long-time clients will remember messages like this one that I sent frequently during the post-Lehman Brother’s bankruptcy era and around Congress’s shenanigans regarding the passage of what eventually became known as TARP. Even though no change or action is required by you, I think staying informed helps people sleep better at night during a potential crisis. So here goes…

We’ve all heard August 2nd is the deadline for raising the debt ceiling or the U.S. will not be able to pay its bills. At the same time, politicians seems to be getting further from an agreement on how to raise the debt ceiling instead of getting closer to one. Much of the press will have you believe that if the debt ceiling is not raised by August 2nd, life as we know it, will not go on and yet the urgency to raise the ceiling doesn’t seem to be there given that 8/2 is a week away. There are three things wrong with that presentation.

First, August 2nd is not the date at which the U.S. will stop paying its debts and run out of money. It is a date that the treasury secretary estimated several weeks ago based on the pace of expenditures and tax revenues. As it turns out, revenues have been higher than projected and the real date appears to be closer to August 10th. Congress is supposed to take their next recess (read: vacation) starting August 6th, so the 2nd was a much more convenient political deadline. There are also Social Security payments which need to go out on August 3rd, debt principal payments that need to go out shortly thereafter, and interest payments that need to be made to Treasury holders later in the month so that crisis is real and important. It’s just not as urgent as the talking heads would make it seem and so the lack of urgency in resolving the crisis is because there is more time that most people realize, even if it is only another week.

Which brings me to point number two. When you’re playing a game of chicken, and by all means that’s what we have here between the politicians, you always have to seem more confident in your path as you get closer to the end game. “I’m not going to move.” “I’m not going to move either… you’ll realize you’re going to move”. All the back and forth as the two get closer to a head-on high-speed collision. It’s not until the very last second that one or both parties are actually ready to move. Therefore, I expect little movement and the appearance of no chance of a deal up until the last few days of the debate. As of yesterday, both parties have put their stake in the ground followed by a stomping of their feet and a “take it or leave it” statement. The soap opera couldn’t be written any better. One or both parties will move as the threat of collision becomes imminent.

Finally, and most importantly, if the U.S. were insolvent and unable to pay its bills, a global financial catastrophe would take place well in advance of the last few cents coming out of the piggy bank. I won’t go into the goriest of details, but basically it would start a panic that U.S. Treasury Bonds were worthless (i.e. those who lent to the U.S. government would permanently stop getting their interest payments and lose their principal). This would make all of the banks and other financial institutions across the world that hold Treasuries potentially insolvent. Within days if not hours of this realization, there would be no more ATMs, no open banks, most money would be worthless, and the world economy would cease to exist. OK, maybe that is pretty gory…. Deep breath… Let’s look around though. We’re a couple of weeks away from potentially not paying our bills and none of this is happening. The U.S. Treasury today auctioned off $35 billion of 2-year notes. The annual interest rate demanded by the auction was 0.417%. That means investors were willing to lend the U.S. government $35 billion dollars today for less than a half penny of interest on every dollar each year for the next two years. Would they really do that if there were any chance of not being paid back? The answer is “no” and the reason is that the U.S. is not insolvent. People, institutions, and countries are scrambling to try to lend us money because we are the safest place in the world to put money. At that same auction, there were bidders for over $100 billion of that $35 billion in debt. The point is that even if lawmakers on both sides don’t give in (and that won’t happen) and the debt ceiling is reached (and that won’t happen) and all other avenues for paying bills are exhausted (and that won’t happen) and we really do legally run out of money because of the debt ceiling (and that won’t happen), the ramifications will be so huge, so fast, that both sides will scramble to save the day almost instantly with a simple act of raising the debt ceiling. One vote, 5 minutes to end the end of the world and this crisis is over. The U.S. is not insolvent and will pay its bills.

The bigger issue, which I’ll save for another update is far more important. We’re on a fiscal path to insolvency and unless that trajectory is corrected, our debt will no longer be the safest instrument in the world. Our borrowing costs will rise, rapidly, and the impact on the economy will be severe. Imagine the value of your house today if someone had to pay 10% for a mortgage to buy it. That has to be corrected and in principal, tackling the beginning of that correction as part of the agreement with ourselves that we’ll increase the debt limit makes some sense. But in the end, whether it happens or not, the debt limit will be raised and life will go on. Unfortunately, politics and the media’s over-dramatic reporting of those politics will go on with it.

If anything changes over the next few weeks that warrants action on your part, I’ll be sure to let you know. As always, if you have questions or comment, please feel free to contact me.

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