How to prepare right now for a debt-ceiling breach (2023)

If the U.S. government cannot pay all its bills because of a debt-ceiling impasse, household borrowing costs could soar, the job market could shed millions of jobs and stock-market valuations could shrink, according to forecasts.

The consequences of a prolonged default could be grim, according to Moody’s Analytics. The projected fallout from a brief default is less severe but still enough to push an “already fragile” economy into a mild recession, Moody’s says.

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said it’s “almost certain” that the Treasury will run out of resources in early June. She also said she would provide a new update on the debt-limit deadline “pretty soon.”

For all the uncertainties, financial experts say there are ways individuals can prepare. Start by making sure your deposits are in accounts backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and think hard about rate-sensitive purchases like a car or a house.

It’s important for people to have a plan in case there is a default, said Rob Williams, managing director of financial planning, retirement income and wealth management at the Schwab Center for Financial Research, a division of Charles Schwab Corp. SCHW, +4.15%.

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said it’s ‘almost certain’ that the Treasury will run out of resources in early June.

“Having a financial plan in place that looks at the long and short term is the best way to prepare for the debt ceiling or any other crisis,” he said.

There is still widespread expectation that Congress will strike a political deal that lifts the federal government’s $31 trillion borrowing limit. President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met again on Monday, and more talks are planned.

McCarthy on Wednesday said he “firmly believe[d]” the sides would reach a deal avoiding default.

But the window of time in which to act is getting smaller. It’s “highly likely” that the government will get to the point where it cannot pay all its bills and debt obligations in early June — possibly as early as June 1, Yellen said this week.

Meanwhile, new Federal Reserve figures offer a reminder that Americans’ personal finances over the last year have been under pressure, even as inflation rates retreat slowly.

More than one-third of people in the U.S. (35%) said they were worse off in 2022 than in 2021, according to the Fed’s annual look at economic well-being, released Monday.

That’s the largest percentage of people saying they were worse off since central bank researchers started asking the question nearly a decade ago.

“If there ever was a time for a rainy-day fund, this is it. But it’s not going to be able to help a lot of consumers,” said Rachel Gittleman, financial services outreach manager for the Consumer Federation of America.

For example, Social Security payments and payments to veterans could be delayed in the event of a default, she said. “There will be a lot of consumers who will be in an impossible financial situation,” Gittleman said.

How to prepare right now for a debt-ceiling breach (1)

Make sure your money is safe

The FDIC guarantees deposits up to $250,000 on accounts including checking, savings and certificates of deposit. That won’t change in the case of any default, an FDIC spokesperson told MarketWatch.

Deposit-insurance coverage came into hard focus in early spring when Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank failed, putting other regional banks under pressure as many customers moved their money into bigger banks.

If economic conditions deteriorate after a default, Gittleman said, people will want assurance their money is safe. If you haven’t taken any of the recent bank failures as a sign to put money in an FDIC-insured account, “this would be the time,” she said.

Start cutting costs quickly

During the early days of the pandemic when there were millions of job losses, many people had to quickly cut back on or delay regular expenses.

If a default puts people in an economic vise, Gittleman said they may need to be ready to shut down nonessential recurring payments and talk with their lenders and credit-card companies. “It’s thinking holistically about all of your financial expectations and where you can possibly either get forbearance or some leniency and ask for some help,” she said.

Credit-card debt reached $986 billion in the first quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and delinquencies on credit cards and car loans continued to move higher after pandemic lows.

Rate-sensitive purchases

After more than a year of rising interest rates, it’s already a tough time to finance a major purchase. On Tuesday, the 30-year fixed mortgage rate climbed higher than 7% for the third time this year.

Any default lasting at least a month would push the 30-year mortgage up to 8.4% in September and price out hundreds of thousands of buyers, according to Zillow Z, +0.18%.

But that is no reason to speed up a home purchase, said Daniel Milan, founder and managing partner of Cornerstone Financial Services.

Any default lasting at least a month would push the 30-year mortgage up to 8.4% in September and price out hundreds of thousands of buyers, according to Zillow.

The Federal Reserve doesn’t set mortgage rates, but its policies influence their direction. The big questions are when the central bank will stop increasing its benchmark rate and when it will begin to reduce the rate.

“The odds of a rate cut outweigh the fear or the rush into buying a home now because of the debt-ceiling crisis,” Milan said.

But the Schwab Center’s Williams noted that trying to time a major financial decision around market and political events is a difficult task.

Financial decisions are a mix of math and emotions, even though many people tend to focus more on the math, he said. That’s why it’s important to figure out a financial plan. Often the best course is to stick to your plan and say, “I’m not going to make major changes in the face of market news,” Williams said.

Portfolio protection

The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -0.11% and the S&P 500 SPX, +0.88% were treading water on Thursday, while the Nasdaq Composite COMP, +1.71% was trading higher.

The yields on short-term Treasury debt TMUBMUSD01M, 5.591% maturing in early June are pushing toward 6% amid continued uncertainty about whether a debt-ceiling resolution can come together fast enough to avoid a government default. Bond prices and yields move in opposite directions, reflecting less investor appetite for debt.

There’s no one rule for preparing an investment portfolio for a debt default, financial advisers said. But older retired investors are in a trickier spot — especially in relation to the prospect of delayed Social Security checks — compared with younger investors who have more time to bounce back from adverse events.

‘We continue to urge clients to make sure we know about any short-term cash needs so that those funds are not at risk.’

— Lisa A.K. Kirchenbauer, founder and president of Omega Wealth Management

Cash investments have proven attractive in rocky times. But the risk of a debt default could make a heftier cash allocation even more important for older investors, financial advisers said.

“We continue to urge clients to make sure we know about any short-term cash needs so that those funds are not at risk,” said Lisa A.K. Kirchenbauer, founder and president of Omega Wealth Management.

Kirchenbauer said she’s starting to hear from clients about debt-ceiling concerns. “I am making sure that larger [required minimum distributions] are in cash for 2023 now, before anything bad happens in the markets.”

Required minimum distributions are the minimum yearly amounts that have to be pulled out of qualified retirement accounts once the owner reaches a certain age, currently 73.

Preparing for any default is a mental exercise as much as asset allocation, said Amy Hubble, principal investment adviser with Radix Financial. If there’s been no change in a person’s personal circumstances, like job status, income needs or retirement timeline, they should avoid getting sidetracked by short-term issues, she said.

“There are only a small handful of things we can actually control when investing,” Hubble added. “So my advice is always to focus on that: keeping costs low, staying diversified, managing tax-recognition timing and avoiding stupid emotion-driven actions.”

Read also: BlackRock’s Rick Rieder sees ‘epic’ cash on sidelines as he takes lead role on new ETF

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