Credit agencies heighten warning on U.S. debt

Dollar notes are displayed in a pyramid.

Kai Ryssdal: The 2nd of August this year comes on a Tuesday, so that gives us just over two and a half weeks to figure out what to do about the debt limit. By us, of course, I mean Washington politicians.

It's entirely possible, though, that the negotiations are about to be taken out of their hands. Moody's -- the credit rating agency -- has joined Standard & Poor's in suggesting America's triple-A credit score might be at risk if there's no deal to be done. Our New York bureau chief Heidi Moore reports.


Heidi Moore: Ernest Hemingway's friends once asked him how he went broke. His answer? "Slowly. Then all at once."

The U.S. is in the same boat. We may not be able pay our bills come August 2nd. Moody's and S&P are threatening to downgrade us. Again. It sounds bad. But our financial troubles are just beginning, says Robert Tipp. He's the chief investment strategist for Prudential Fixed Income.

Robert Tipp: I think it's a slow burn. I think getting downgraded a tick is not a disaster. It's undesirable.

Tipp said the U.S. has never been downgraded, even though we've been borrowing for years and have no credible plan to pay it off. So I asked Chris Whalen, a well-known financial analyst, what investors who hold U.S. bonds could do if America defaults.

Chris Whalen: Where are they going to run if the Treasury is late paying its bills? They got nowhere to run. If we're a few days late, the world will not end. People will wait.

A day after Moody's threat, investors aren't acting as if they're worried. Today, investors couldn't get enough of the new 30-year Treasury bonds. Whalen believes the credit agencies are bluffing. He says Moody's and S&P know that if we go down, we'll be taking everybody else with us.

Whalen: All that will happen if they downgrade the U.S., the whole market will be downgraded. Because everybody trades off the U.S.

That's because we're still the biggest economy on earth. And the dollar is not just our currency -- it's the world's currency. Central banks have trillions to invest, and they do that mainly in dollars. But maybe they won't do that forever.

In New York, I'm Heidi Moore for Marketplace.

About the author

Heidi N. Moore is The Guardian's U.S. finance and economics editor. She was formerly the New York bureau chief and Wall Street correspondent for Marketplace.

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