The Federal Government Races to the Cliff

In the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean and a teenage rival race two cars to the edge of a cliff in a game of chicken. Both intend to jump out at the last moment. But the other guy miscalculates, and goes over the cliff with the car.

This is the game that is being played out in Washington this month over the debt ceiling. The chance is at least 1/4 that the result will be similarly disastrous.

It is amazing that the financial markets continue to view the standoff with equanimity. Interest rates on US treasury bonds remain very low, 3% at the ten-year maturity. Evidently it is still considered a sign of sophistication to say “This is just politics as usual. They will come to an agreement in the end.” Probably they will. But maybe not. (I’d put a ½ probability on an agreement that raises the debt limit, but just muddles through in terms of the genuine long term fiscal problem. That leaves at most a ¼ probability of a genuine long-term solution of the sort that President Obama apparently proposed last week - described as worth $4 trillion over ten years.)

My advice to investors is to shift immediately out of US treasuries and into high-rated corporate bonds. If the worst happens, you will probably save yourself from a big capital loss within the next month. If not, there is no harm done.