Moody’s Investors Service said Wednesday it has put the U.S. government’s top-notch credit rating on review for a possible downgrade because of the risk that Washington will not raise the federal debt ceiling in time to avoid a default.
The firm added that even a brief failure of the government to pay its bills would mean that the United States’s Aaa rating “would likely no longer be appropriate.”
The announcement comes after Standard & Poor’s, another of the major credit rating agencies, has said that it would dramatically downgrade the U.S. government’s credit rating if payments were missed.
The U.S. has long been able to borrow money cheaply because global investors believe the government can be counted on to repay its debts. If credit rating agencies downgrade the U.S. and investors lose their faith in the creditworthiness of the government, the cost of borrowing money — in other words, the interest rate — could rise.
The Treasury Department has said that on Aug. 2, it will run out of legal tools to meet the government’s financial obligations in the absence of an agreement to raise the $14.3 trillion legal limit on how much debt the government can maintain.
The Moody’s review is prompted by “the possibility that the debt limit will not be raised in time to prevent a missed payment of interest or principal on outstanding bonds and notes,” an announcement from the firm said Wednesday. “Moody’s considers the probability of a default on interest payments to be low but no longer to be de minimis.”
It added that an actual default, or failure by the federal government to pay its bills, “would fundamentally alter Moody’s assessment of the timeliness of future payments.”
In early June, Moody’s had said it would likely review the federal government’s credit rating in mid-July if there were no “meaningful progress” in negotiations over raising the debt limit. That review is now happening.
Moody’s also has placed on review several companies that enjoy implicit backing of the federal government, most notably the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
A senior Treasury Department official pointed to the Moody’s announcement as evidence that Congress needs to act to raise the debt ceiling.
“Moody’s assessment is a timely reminder of the need for Congress to move quickly to avoid defaulting on the country’s obligations and agree upon a substantial deficit reduction package,” said Jeffrey A. Goldstein, the Treasury undersecretary for domestic finance, in a statement.