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Credit rating agencies warn of fallout should debt-ceiling talks lead to U.S. default

October 1, 2021, 10:14 PM UTC

Wall Street’s leading credit rating agencies are starting to raise the red flag on the potential fallout should the U.S. default on its debt for the first time ever.

S&P Global Ratings warned Thursday that a default would be “unprecedented in modern times for an advanced G-7 country,” like U.S.—setting the stage for what S&P described as “severe and extraordinary” fallout. The S&P Global-owned ratings agency does expect lawmakers to ultimately address the debt ceiling, though.

On Friday, Fitch Ratings made a similar warning.

“Fitch believes that the debt limit will be raised or suspended in time to avert a default event, but if this were not done in a timely manner, political brinkmanship and reduced financing flexibility could increase the risk of a U.S. sovereign default,” it said. Nonetheless, if the U.S. does default, Fitch said it would downgrade the U.S.

Lawmakers on the left have been scrambling to address the $28.4 trillion debt limit the U.S. government is on the brink of butting up against.

Democrats tried to do so Monday by including it in a broader measure to temporarily fund the government, but they were stymied by Republicans who have expressed little interest in helping Democrats raise or even suspend the debt ceiling. “There is no chance, no chance the Republican conference will go out of our way to help Democrats conserve their time and energy, so they can resume ramming through partisan socialism’s as fast as possible,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has voted nearly three dozen times to previously raise or suspend the debt limit, on Monday.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen expects that the U.S. will default on its debt by Oct. 18, if the debt ceiling remains in place at its current level—though the exact date is still unknown.

A default would not just be unprecedented. It would also carry widespread financial and economic implications domestically and around the world, Yellen said. The U.S. unemployment rate, for instance, could surge back up toward 9% as a result, according to Moody’s Analytics. Lenders may not be as willing to accept Treasury bonds as collateral, according to The New York Times. And S&P’s 2011 downgrade of the U.S. debt, which came on the heels of a similar debt ceiling stand-off that was ultimately resolved, rattled markets into a sell-off now known as Black Monday—potentially providing a warning sign of what could come. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon recently told Reuters that a default would be “potentially catastrophic.”

S&P does see the “uncertainties surrounding periodic political impasses over the debt ceiling” as potentially harmful to public confidence and the status of financial markets. Yet, it still does ultimately believe the current tension around the debt ceiling will get resolved, as the rating agency said in its report: “these uncertainties reflect political maneuvering rather than underlying economic difficulties.”

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