NEW YORK — If the United States were to default on its debt or have its bonds downgraded, the ripple effect would reach the global economy.
“Frankly, to have a default, to have a serious downgrading of the United States’ signature would be a very, very serious event,” said Lagarde at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Not for the United States alone, but for the global economy at large because the consequences would be far-reaching. It would not stop at the frontiers of the United States; it would go beyond.”
If the United States were to default on the interest on its bonds, private economists say, it would cause banks around the world to write down the value of their enormous holdings of U.S. Treasury securities. At the same time, stock markets around the world would probably plunge.
If banks were to write down the value of their bonds, they would have to raise capital quickly or shutter their doors, Bryson says. “Their capital base would shrink, and when that happens, they are less likely to make loans,” he says. “It would spill over very quickly to the real economy.”
However, not all economists envision a doomsday-like scenario.
“I suspect the Fed already has contingency plans for this problem,” Mr. Behravesh says. “It does not necessarily have to be a disaster.”
The Treasury would continue to pay the interest on U.S. debt, he says. However, he estimates that the government is spending 40 percent more than it’s taking in. This means the government would have to stop paying other bills coming due.
On Wall Street on Tuesday, investors continued to shy away from the stock market. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was off about 85 points, and the price of gold ticked up by some $7 an ounce to about $1,619.
Even if the debt ceiling is raised and spending cut by the Aug. 2 deadline, an economic spillover could still happen.
Although Lagarde didn’t comment on any of the plans under discussion in Washington, she did say that IMF studies have found a short-term negative economic impact from shrinking budget deficits. The current Republican and Democratic proposals have the budget deficits shrinking by $1 trillion to $4 trillion over 10 years.
“To be precise, our studies show that a reduction of one percentage point on the deficit entails in many instances 0.5 percent off the growth number,” she enumerated. That’s why, she said, the IMF recommends any budget cutting take place at a time when the economy is growing.
Bahravesh, for one, says Congress should postpone major spending reductions for at three to four years. “It’s a bit of a balancing act. We think you want to backload it versus starting it next year,” he says.
He points to Britain as an example of an economy that is suffering from large cuts in government spending. On Tuesday, Britain reported that second-quarter gross domestic product rose by only 0.2 percent compared with the prior quarter. “The UK’s economy is dead in the water,” he says. “That’s not what the U.S. wants.”
Once an economy adjusts to a smaller government footprint, the IHS economist says, the private sector might become more robust. The payoff for the economy takes five to 10 years, he says.
If the rating agencies downgrade US bonds, it might have a negative impact on some money-market mutual funds and insurance companies whose standards require them to invest in the highest-rated bonds. But it might not be disastrous, Bahravesh says.
“What are the alternatives?” he asks. “Where do money-market funds and insurance companies go? Do they buy Chinese bonds or German bonds? There are no good alternatives.”