And their trouble borrowing is the primary way a default, or even something too close to it for the market’s comfort, could deal a body blow to the economy.
It all comes back to U.S. Treasury bonds, which are the foundation of almost all other financial products — the base of the global financial pyramid.
If the federal government’s borrowing costs rise, so will everyone else’s. Mortgages rates will jump, car loans will be harder to come by, universities won’t be able to float bonds, cities won’t be able to fund themselves.
Treasuries are supposed to set the rate of “riskless return” — the price of loaning someone money and knowing, with perfect certainty, that they’ll pay you back, with interest. So when lenders decide how much to charge, they start with the riskless rate and then add to it to cover the risk that you won’t pay them back, and the inconvenience of having to wait for you to pay them back.
It’s a practice called benchmarking, and it’s everywhere: in your mortgage, your credit card, your car payments, the loan you took out to hire three new employees at your business. It’s even common internationally. The fact that Brazilian loans tie themselves to the American government’s debt just shows the high esteem in which the world holds us.
But if the rate on 10-year Treasuries rises, it means rates rise for everything else, too. That’s why economists consider the Federal Reserve’s power to affect interest rates — a power it has virtually exhausted during this crisis — so potent: if you can move the basic interest rate, you can move the whole economy.
“There’s a whole credit structure,” says Pete Davis, president of Davis Capital Investment Ideas. “Think of it as roads and bridges, but it’s finance, it’s all connected, and it’s all on top of Treasuries. . . . So when you shake the basis of it, everything on top of it shakes, too.”
Some sectors of the economy, of course, will be shaken harder than others. Benchmarking is just the most common way that the smooth function of the Treasury market affects everything else; it’s not the only way.
On Wednesday, Moody’s warned that they were putting the U.S. government credit rating on review for a downgrade. But they didn’t stop there. Another 7,000 debt products that are “directly linked to the U.S. government or are otherwise vulnerable to sovereign risk” were also put on review for a possible downgrade. That’s about $130 billion worth of debt. If America tumbles, so do they.
These are bonds that rely on payments from the federal government. Naomi Richman, a managing director in Moody’s Public Finance division, puts it bluntly: “There are certain kinds of municipal bonds that are directly reliant on Treasury paying or some other direct payment,” she says. “If those bonds don’t receive their payment, they have no other source of revenue.” If the federal government can’t pay its bills, down they go.