Perspective on the US Debt Ceiling

Perspective on the US Debt Ceiling

May 23, 2023

Perspective on the US Debt Ceiling

  

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The debt ceiling is the amount of money Congress has authorized the government to borrow. The ceiling has been raised 78 times since 1960.
  • It’s not clear how the debt ceiling fight will be resolved or how it will impact investors. 
  • We believe a diversified mix of equity and fixed income investments and a long-term horizon are likely to be the best tools to ride out uncertainty.

 

If the ongoing debate over the debt ceiling is giving you a dizzying sense of déjà vu, you are forgiven. The debt ceiling, or limit, reflects the amount of money the United States (US) Congress has authorized the government to borrow, and Congress can authorize increases when the government nears or reaches the existing limit. According to the US Treasury Department, Congress has acted to effectively raise the debt ceiling 78 distinct times since 1960.1 Occasionally, policymakers have struggled to reach consensus to authorize increases.

 

The US effectively reached the debt limit in January, triggering “extraordinary measures” by the Treasury Department to allow continued servicing of existing debts and obligations. But Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has issued a warning that the “X-date,” when these extraordinary measures may be exhausted, could come as soon as June 1.2 As the X-date approaches without a political consensus to raise the debt limit, many investors are wondering how a breach of the debt ceiling could impact their investments.

 

While debt ceiling debates can be nerve-racking, the implications for investors are uncertain. Historically, Congress has always raised the debt limit, and even if Congress failed to increase the limit in time, it is not clear what that would mean in practical terms. A range of payments could be impacted, from salary payments for federal workers to interest and principal payments on federal debt. But trying to predict likely scenarios is largely unproductive, given that markets have priced in the potential range of outcomes. Sticking to a sound investment plan that is designed to achieve long-term goals can help investors see beyond the current turmoil.

 

As the X-date nears without a clear path to political resolution, we may observe reactions and heightened volatility in both the equity and fixed income markets. The debt limit negotiations are one of many factors that impact security prices. In the debt ceiling crisis of 2011, US Treasury yields declined during the period surrounding the culmination of the tense negotiations that resolved in August (see Exhibit 1), despite S&P downgrading the credit rating on US sovereign debt from AAA to AA+.3 

 

When investors face uncertainty, diversification remains one of the most important risk management tools available to them. Although a US government technical default likely would trigger reverberations throughout global markets, we believe a balanced asset allocation of global equity and fixed income investments combined with a long-term investment horizon are the best tools investors can use to help ride out short-term and close-to-home uncertainty.