It’s true that the selling of many billions of Treasuries in such a way would most likely cause disruption, though the impact depends a lot on how much is sold. The effects include higher Treasury yields, making refinancing more expensive—since most government debt is shorter term. So, debt servicing would become more challenging, a challenge that could be magnified if the trigger were a default that led to a credit downgrade and a permanently embedded yield premium.
This type of scenario isn’t a new risk. It existed last year, five years ago, and even more so roughly a decade ago when the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis was unfolding. The debt-ceiling debate has intensified over the past couple of decades, while stopping short of default. We expect similar brinkmanship this year, with the US again likely to bump up against the date at which it truly runs out of money. The best way to avoid unwanted complications is to manage debt in an orderly way, sending a strong signal that the US is willing to service its debt.
Could a US Debt Standoff Tarnish the Dollar’s Reserve Currency Status?
Dating back to the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944, the US has been the world’s leading reserve currency for central banks and large financial institutions, and the US has always paid its bills, underpinning the Treasury bond’s status as a safe haven. If the debt-ceiling battle were to deteriorate into a default and freeze up the Treasury market and other markets, it would threaten the symbiotic relationship between the dollar and Treasuries. Would the dollar’s appeal diminish enough to spur currency reserve managers to seek out other avenues?
To answer that question, we need to start with why the dollar has been the main reserve currency. It’s freely traded, and US authorities don’t manage its exchange value. It’s very liquid, with minimal transaction costs to buy and sell it against other currencies and a massive daily volume of trading activity. It’s supported by a large, globally important economy with a sizable liquid underpinning of financial assets to buy with it, and it’s supported by the world’s largest, deepest capital market. Reserve managers seeking to replace the dollar face something of a TINA (there is no other alternative) scenario, because the US dollar is the only currency that checks all the boxes. In the absence of other alternatives, the dollar is the destination.
But we come back to a common thread that runs through all these responses. It’s critical that the US continues to demonstrate not only its ability, but also its willingness, to pay the bills. This is the best advice for warding off any of the unwanted complications we’ve discussed here.
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