PhillyInc: Policymakers not inspiring confidence on debt

George Tsetsekos, dean of Drexel's business college, is following the situation closely.
George Tsetsekos, dean of Drexel's business college, is following the situation closely.
Posted: July 26, 2011

For weeks, I've largely ignored the political food fight that has been the debate on raising the debt ceiling.

The vitriol, finger-pointing, and name-calling employed by both political parties gave me the impression that those in Washington were not concerned about what might happen if Congress failed to lift the debt limit above $14.3 trillion by next Tuesday.

And in truth, I felt justified in tuning out the sludge because so many investors, economists, and other thoughtful professionals have maintained their belief that the debt ceiling ultimately would be raised. The consequences of not doing so would be just too dire for either side to take the risk, they said.

I'm not worried that the federal government might bounce a check in August, even though we're one week away from the debt-limit deadline and far from any agreement on what to do.

However, if no deal is reached by next Tuesday, we will have lost the right to scoff about Europe's inability to get its fiscal house in order or to dismiss Japan's "lost decade" as symbolic of its structural weakness.

The weekend blame-athon that began Friday night and lasted through Sunday was especially dispiriting. It had me fretting about what Monday morning would bring.

The U.S. stock market opened lower, with the Dow Jones industrial average down more than 140 points at one point. But at the close, the Dow finished at 12,592.80, down just 88.36 points, or 0.7 percent.

To me, that lack of panic means investors remain confident a deal can be struck among the political class to avert a self-inflicted crisis that might derail what has been a lumpy economic recovery.

But what distresses me is how little policymakers seem to have learned from the recent financial crisis and the consequences (intended or otherwise) of action or inaction.

OK, maybe policymakers did learn some lessons, but that well-earned knowledge seems to be subsumed by this vicious circle of point/counterpoint as we near a possible default - a status so unthinkable, many asset managers don't factor it into their strategies.

The major credit-rating agencies of Standard & Poor's, Moody's, and Fitch have all warned that the United States faces the loss of its pristine AAA rating. They may not pull the trigger on any downgrade in the next two weeks, but one smaller rating agency already has.

Haverford-based Egan-Jones Ratings Co. cut its rating on U.S. government debt from AAA to AA+ as of July 16. Sean J. Egan, its managing director, said in an e-mail he was less concerned about any "short delinquency" brought about by a delay in raising debt ceiling. Rather, it's the high level of public debt to gross domestic product - which the firm calculates as more than 100 percent - that prompted the move.

The United States is far from becoming the next Greece, which has received two bailouts within the last year. But George Tsetsekos, dean of Drexel University's LeBow College of Business who has closely followed the convulsions in his Mediterranean homeland, said the failure to raise the U.S. debt limit and subsequent downgrade would be "in the short term a catastrophe."

"To be frank, I'm afraid of what's going to happen on Aug. 2," he said.

But even as Tsetsekos worries about the potential damage to investor confidence from a potential downgrade of the United States, he said he also saw it as an opportunity for the global economy to correct the imbalances among high-surplus countries, such as China, and high-debt countries, such as you-know-who.

The criticism I keep hearing regarding the European sovereign debt crisis is that leaders could have minimized the damage in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal through more decisive action rather than half-measures. The rhetoric emanating from different nations was (and still is) confusing.

Sounds exactly like a description of what's been playing out for weeks in Washington.

American business, through its financial engineering, let down the global economy, having sown seeds of the credit crisis that began in 2007 and exploded in 2008.

Will we be saying the same about American government should Aug. 2 come and go without a deal to raise the debt ceiling?


Contact columnist Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.phillyinc.biz.

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