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A debt default by the U.S. would be devastating to the nation's credit rating


OK, the triple-A rating on government debt is as good as it can be.


It shows that a country reliably pays its bills. And just like your personal credit score determines things like how much credit you can get and how much it will cost, that credit rating affects the interest rates a country pays to borrow. Two of three ratings agencies have given the U.S a triple-A rating up to now, though negotiations over the debt limit now endanger that.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Gura joins us now. David, good morning.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks for being with us early. How much is at risk?

GURA: Well, you know, in large part, what these ratings reflect is that the U.S. is in a really unique economic position. It's the world's largest economic engine, and the U.S. has always paid its bills on time to the companies and countries that have bought its bonds. But every time the U.S. goes through this - and this happens dozens of times since World War II - investors and policymakers have the chance to think twice, and so do ratings agencies. And one of them has taken action in the past. S&P Global did downgrade the U.S. to double-A-plus back in 2011. That was just a few days after another bruising battle over the debt ceiling. You know, what they do - S&P, Moody's, Fitch - is they dig through data, analysts meet with government officials. And Kathy Jones, who's the chief fixed-income strategist at Charles Schwab, told me their goal is to answer one key question.

KATHY JONES: What's the probability of default? Typically, with the U.S., it's been nearly zero. But now it rises when we get into these fights over the debt ceiling.

INSKEEP: Well, given that the U.S. was downgraded by one agency the last time there was a serious conflict over this, is the U.S. at risk of losing the triple-A ratings from the others?

GURA: Well, of course, if there's no deal and there is a default, we'd see downgrades. That's a given. But even if there isn't a default, these ratings agencies are going to ask themselves whether U.S. debt deserves to be triple-A. You know, as we've said, one of these agencies doesn't think so. It's been 12 years, and S&P still has the U.S. a notch below triple-A. The chair of S&P's sovereign rating committee back then was John Chambers. He's retired now, and I asked him what the rationale was for that downgrade. And Chambers told me there really were two reasons.

JOHN CHAMBERS: One was the political impasse and the fractiousness of policy setting, and the other was the fiscal trajectory.

GURA: In other words, it had to do with the size of the country's debt and deficit and also how difficult it was, then, for policymakers to agree on anything, including what to do with the debt ceiling. So the more things change, the more they stay the same. And we could see Fitch and Moody's follow suit. And although they declined to talk with me on the record, Steve, they have indicated they are watching these talks very closely.

INSKEEP: How much would a downgrade matter to all of us?

GURA: Well, odds are we'd see a steep selloff in the markets. The day after that downgrade back in 2011, the S&P 500 sank by almost 7%. We'd probably see the dollar weaken, and U.S. government bonds would be seen as riskier. Now, because of that, investors would demand higher interest from the U.S. because of that additional risk, and that would make it more costly for the U.S. to raise money. Your credit card analogy is a good one. But, Steve, ratings are just one part of how professional investors make decisions, and at the end of the day, firms do their own analysis. They look at those data and ratings from these agencies before they decide to buy bonds or to sell them. And I want to say, despite all this, the U.S. is still seen as a country that is safe and secure. And something else it has going forward is, right now, investors who are in the market for government debt really have limited options. They don't have a whole lot of alternatives.

INSKEEP: Not going to buy from Argentina, I suppose. David, thanks so much.

GURA: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Gura.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.