U.S. could avoid default a few days longer, new reports say

Although failing to raise the debt ceiling by the early August deadline would plunge the United States into a sea of uncertainty, the government might be able to pay the bills and avoid a default on obligations for longer than expected, economic analysts said.

As lawmakers and President Obama rush to craft an agreement to increase the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, the Treasury Department is standing by its estimate that the government will need to borrow more money after Aug. 2 to pay for all its obligations.

But several new reports — from UBS, Barclays and Wells Fargo — have cast doubt on that estimate. Analysts have said that daily tax receipts have been higher than anticipated and that the Treasury has quite a bit of cash on hand.

As of Friday, according to the Treasury, the government had $85 billion in cash.

UBS estimates that the government will run out of money to pay all bills starting no sooner than Aug. 8. Barclays suggests Aug. 10. Wells Fargo Securities said the government might have to cut back on some spending but could pay most of its bill through August.

“If policymakers are truly falling short by just a few days on a big agreement, they now seem to have an extra week or so,” said Barclays analysts, led by senior debt strategist Ajay Rajadhyaksha.

Still, it’s not clear what will happen. Even if the government can pay its bills for a week or more, it cannot do so indefinitely without slashing about 40 percent of federal spending. That would deal a severe setback to the economy.

What’s more, it’s unknown how the market would react to news that the government failed to raise the debt ceiling. Investors around the world might give officials in Washington a little time to work things out, but the market could also rapidly turn against the United States.

On Monday, there were already signs of concern in the market. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange — an important financial trading center — said it would no longer treat short-term Treasury bills as risk-free when used as collateral.

It also increased requirements for longer-term Treasury bonds, which means that traders posting Treasury bonds or bills as collateral will have to turn over more money for the same types of transactions.

At the Treasury, officials are worried about Aug. 4, when they are set to pay back nearly $100 billion in debt and issue new debt for the same amount, thereby “rolling over” the obligations. If investors are not showing up to buy the debt, it could cause severe trouble.

But others say it is likely that big investors in Treasury bonds — particularly central banks — would still show up to buy Treasury securities even in a crisis. With Europe already struggling, the U.S. Treasury might still have no rival as a place to invest money.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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