I’m not one of those standard Westminster types who always quotes The West Wing – really I’m not. But I did like how that show explained the debt ceiling, as per the video above. “So this debt ceiling thing is routine or the end of the world?” comes the question from Kristin Chenoweth’s Annabeth Schott. “Both,” responds Richard Schiff’s Toby Ziegler.
It’s routine simply because this is how American politics works: a thousand checks and balances have been encoded into the system to prevent the executive from having its way with the public finances. All of the fractious, five-minutes-to-midnight politicking may look crazy from over here, but, as I’ve written before, there are reasons to admire it as much as to scoff. We could probably have done with an institutionalised debate about the deficit and all that in the years leading up to 2008.
Yet it’s also the end of the world because, well, it’s possible to imagine how we get from here to stock market collapse, questions about the suitability of the dollar as the world’s leading reserve currency, global depression and more. Those possibilities are even more terrifyingly salient today, as tomorrow is when the US Treasury is claiming that it will run out of cash – and legislators are still hurrying to come up with a solution in time.
I stress that word “possible”, though – because no-one really knows what will happen if agreement cannot be reached, and only a few more have been brave enough to put any numbers on it. The IMF, for instance, has warned that “reassessment of US sovereign risk could reduce global output by several percentage points of GDP”. As the World Bank’s predictions ahead of last year’s (different sort of) American fiscal crisis suggested, what happens in Washington is felt around the world.
Besides, despite the eleventh-hour political flap, there doesn’t appear to be much market expectation that Congress will fail to reach a deal in the not-too-distant. Sure, America’s very-short-term borrowing costs have risen – to the unusual point where the Government now pays more interest on its one-month bonds than on its three-month bonds – but the effects aren’t so pronounced to count as a panic. I suspect most investors feel that, even if a deal isn’t agreed today, the US Treasury will be able to shunt some money around until a better accommodation is reached. Of course, they may be less sanguine about the situation if it goes on for much longer.
Which is why, for now at least, I think it’s more important to consider the effect this whole farrago may have already had – because it certainly has had an effect. A bunch of Wall Street moneymongers yesterday explained to the House how consumer spending and the demand for small business loans has been dampened. An IGM poll of economists had 48 per cent agreeing that “with or without a default, current uncertainty over future taxing and spending policies of the US government is likely to depress private investment and hiring by enough to reduce GDP growth by at least a quarter of a percentage point over the next 12 months”.
So, the prospect of lower growth in America, whatever happens. Whether that, by itself, is enough to knock our own recovering economy, I don’t know. But much will be revealed, as it has been in the past, by that most reliable and important of metrics: George Osborne’s speeches. If our Chancellor starts talking about America after today, then you’ll know he has his worries.