With the government up against its spending limit, negotiations are brewing in Congress. Investors’ best move now? Stay the course.
Chris Seter, Global Fixed Income Strategist
Olivia Schwern, Global Investment Strategist
Our Top Market Takeaways for April 21, 2023
So far, so good
Investor focus has shifted from banks to corporate earnings and economic data. And so far, companies are proving more resilient than expected, despite signs pointing to a slowing U.S. economy.
Most notably, the too-hot labor market is showing early signs of easing up. The number of continuing unemployment claims reached the highest level in nearly two years. The housing market is also working hard to find its footing. The NAHB Housing Market Index, a survey of homebuilders for new homes, hit its highest level since September and is in its fourth straight month of increases. But extremely low inventories are keeping existing home sales at a trough-like level.
Global growth is also still solid. The Global Purchasing Managers’ Index has bounced from last fall. China is in the early stages of its reopening, with economic growth now running at its fastest pace in four quarters. Europe is benefiting from the pent-up demand, and even EM export data is exceeding expectations by the most in two years.
Markets had a hard time finding direction along the way. Heading into Friday, the S&P 500 looks to finish the week just slightly off of where it started (~4,130), and bond yields took a round trip on both hot and cold data. But despite a mixed week, stocks have now gone 20 straight trading days without falling at least 1%, the longest streak in nearly two years. Implied equity volatility has collapsed to its lowest levels since the Federal Reserve started hiking.
The path from here will likely hinge on the rest of earnings season (a busier next week) and word from the Fed at its meeting in the first days of May.
In the meantime, it’s been close to four months since the U.S. government hit its debt limit, and the saga has floated back to the surface. In the rest of today’s note, we revisit what we know and what we’ve learned out of Washington over the past week.
Guess who’s back, back again: Debt ceiling drama
At the start of the year, the U.S. government hit its legal $31.4 trillion debt limit. We published a note at the time that walked through the fundamentals of the debt ceiling, what happens when the government approaches these levels, and what investors have experienced in past Washington showdowns. Over the last few months, the Treasury (which is responsible for the government’s pocketbook) has been hard at work using “extraordinary measures” to help the government continue paying its obligations and avoid default. But those measures can only last so long.
Some form of a cap on government debt has been in place since 1917, and an event such as this is far from uncommon. If Congress fails to suspend or raise the limit by the potential default date, also known as the “X-date,” we would expect the Treasury to prioritize paying its debt obligations, while curbing other expenditures such as education and transportation, or more even drastically, Social Security. If the Treasury then fails to make payments on its obligations (worst case), the impact could be calamitous—a reason to expect that a compromise among policymakers would eventually be found.
In the long history of the debt limit, the impasse in 2011 carries the most notoriety. Congress increased the ceiling just before the X-date, the closest call on record. Days later, the S&P downgraded the government’s credit rating to AA+ from AAA. Risk assets reacted negatively: The dollar sold off, stocks sank and credit spreads widened, but a strong rally in Treasuries led bonds higher overall. Outside of this instance, markets have been more driven by the prevailing economic and market dynamics of the time, and volatility has been ultimately short-lived.
The U.S. government has approached and exceeded the debt limit dozens of times throughout history, and in each instance, policymakers have eventually come to a compromise to raise the ceiling and avoid the worst-case scenarios. The best way for investors to prepare for potential disorder is by simply sticking with their long-term portfolio plans that are built to weather events such as these.
Negotiations in Congress are starting. Republicans detailed their stance this week. The bill has not yet been finalized, though House Speaker McCarthy came out with a proposal for a $4.5 trillion reduction in budget deficits over the next decade in exchange for a temporary suspension of the limit through March 2024, or a $1.5 trillion increase. The details include a significant reduction to non-defense discretionary spending, a reversal of student debt cancellation, a return of unused pandemic funds and more.
Even if the bill is passed in the House after it’s ironed out (an uncertain outcome, given a slim majority and fractured caucus), the proposal will likely be a non-starter for Democrats. Negotiations look set to go down to the wire.
Tax revenues will soon provide clarity on the potential default date. The second catalyst of this week was Tax Day on April 18. Tax revenue data will soon allow investors to better pinpoint the runway to the X-date. For now, this timing is widely estimated to fall between June and August (with bias on the earlier side due to weak receipts so far), but we expect estimates to shift in the coming days.
We see three scenarios on how this could play out. We think the first is the most likely:
(1) The debt ceiling is increased ahead of the potential default date. In every instance in history, this has been the eventual outcome, and we expect this year to be no different. As Congress works out a compromise, we’re likely to see investors avoid Treasury bills that mature in the wake of the X-date. This has already started to play out as 3-month Treasury bill yields have spiked and 1-month Treasury bill yields have plummeted to their lowest level since last October. In fact, the dispersion between the two is the widest in over 20 years. We expect these oddities to continue as policymakers work out the kinks to reassure investors of the soundness of short-term government debt.
(2) We go through the X-date without a ceiling increase, but the Treasury still makes interest payments to avoid a technical default. In our view, to avoid default, the government would prioritize security payments at the expense of cuts to discretionary, or even mandatory, spending. The consequence of this is a direct hit to economic activity and financial market sentiment. Other ways to avoid default would be to simply ignore the debt limit on grounds that it violates the 14th Amendment (which would cause serious legal trouble), or the Treasury could mint a coin and deposit it to the Fed—the latter being, to us, highly farfetched.
(3) We go through the X-date and delay payments (i.e., default). This would be the worst-case and least likely scenario. It’s hard to say what the full consequences would be, but it’s likely the harsh reaction across financial assets would warrant movement from Congress. But even if the debt limit is subsequently raised, the question remains on whether Treasuries would need to trade with a permanently increased risk premium (i.e., investors would demand to be compensated more for taking on greater risk). The “risk-free” rate would be a term of the past.
Diversification is still the best defense
The potential for a disorderly debt ceiling episode provides another opportunity for global investors to reconsider their portfolio allocations across asset classes and regions.
Further, yields globally are still near recent highs, with bonds outside of the United States also providing compelling income and protection in the event of a broad economic downturn. Finally, while stocks could take a hit in an adverse scenario, high-quality international equities are being supported by a resilient global growth story and could provide relative insulation. For the more tactical investor, safe-haven currencies like the Japanese yen and Swiss franc, as well as precious metals such as gold, could provide some protection.
And for those sitting on excess cash, debt ceiling turbulence could be a good thing to watch for a potential entry point.
All told, debt ceiling episodes have come and subsequently gone in the past. While the last couple of years in markets have taught us to “never say never,” our base case is for an agreement before the default date is breached. The most powerful tool in investors’ toolkits is simply sticking with the long-term investment plan that was set up to weather events such as these.
Your J.P. Morgan team is here to help you put this into the context of your and your family’s portfolio.
All market and economic data as of April 2023 and sourced from Bloomberg Finance L.P. and FactSet unless otherwise stated.
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