Morgan Stanley: Here Comes “The Three-Headed Policy Monster”

One month ago, Morgan Stanley's chief cross-asset strategist looked at the current state of the market - "the S&P 500, Russell 2000 and NASDAQ have hit all-time highs. Volatility has plunged back down near all-time lows. Credit is tighter and yields have been stable" - and asked "what rattles this market. What breaks the egg?"

His answer was five-fold, including valuations, inflation, geopolitics and China, but the biggest concern was what is coming in just one month on the US legislative docket:

The debt ceiling worries us most, given that action may need to be taken within as little as seven weeks.

It was "seven weeks" four weeks ago, which means that the D(debt)-day for the US government - now expected ti hit in the first days of October - is ever closer, even as the domestic political situation in the U.S. gets progressively worse.

So where are we now?

Predictably, as Sheets writes in today's latest weekly Sunday Start, "political risk is rising on our list of concerns, after a limited (negative) impact so far this year", and while the MS strategist is concerned about the UK, he is increasingly more worried about the US: "In the US, it’s the need to pass a budget and increase America’s borrowing authority so the world’s largest economy can pay its bills. The stakes are high; without the ability to issue new debt, our economists expect that the US Treasury’s dwindling cash reserves could be exhausted by mid-October" meanwhile "in the US, Congress will return Labor Day to face what my colleague Michael Zezas calls a “three-headed policy monster”: Raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget and embarking on tax reform. None are easy, but we see the debt ceiling as the most immediate test."

What happens then:

The most likely outcome is that, after some tension, the debt ceiling gets raised. But we don’t think it will be easy, or smooth, and it may require some form of market pressure to get different sides to fall in line. I’ve spoken to investors who are comforted by FOMC transcripts from 2011 that discussed prioritisation of debt payments in order to avoid default. I am not. First, I worry that this reduces the urgency of what remains a serious issue. Second, this prioritisation would require delaying payments to programmes like Social Security and Medicare, with real human and economic cost. And third, while the mechanics of this prioritisation may work, it is untested in a live environment.

In other words, the fact that the Fed has a "backup plan" for the worst case scenario, is precisely why the worst case scenario is now much more likely to happen, something that judging by the growing kink in the T-Bill curve, the market increasingly agrees with, and why the first week of October could be a major shock for risk assets.

 

Furthermore, assuming a best-case outcome, one where a clean bill passes with no problems, there is an additional wrinkle according to MS:

"in the good scenario where the debt ceiling is increased, the Treasury will need to issue a lot of paper to claw back the cash balance that’s been drained during this process. Our US economists think that this could involve US$300-375 billion of T-Bill issuance in 4Q, a level with very limited historical precedent."

While there are various trade ideas associated with that observation, Sheets ends off with a somber, philosophical adieu:

The idea that America’s creditworthiness is beyond reproach is, without exaggeration, the cornerstone of the global fixed income market. We hope that politicians appreciate the seriousness of this issue and put politics aside to resolve it. History is watching.

And on that note, here is Morgan Stanley's full report:

One-Sided Political Risk

 

We remain constructive. But political risk is rising on our list of concerns, after a limited (negative) impact so far this year. In both the US and UK this risk looks one-sided and negatively skewed over the next month, with the best case being that it may not matter. We’d stress that this is before considering any effect on confidence or policy after a growing number of CEOs and business leaders moved this week to publicly rebuke and distance themselves from the US administration.

 

In a few weeks’ time, politicians will come back from their summer holidays to face serious challenges. In the UK, there will be increased scrutiny of the progress (or lack of) in Brexit negotiations. In the US, it’s the need to pass a budget and increase America’s borrowing authority so the world’s largest economy can pay its bills. The stakes are high; without the ability to issue new debt, our economists expect that the US Treasury’s dwindling cash reserves could be exhausted by mid-October.

 

Simple, one might say. For the UK, negotiations are still in their early stages. For the US, leaders from both parties have stated that they’re committed to raising the debt ceiling. Yet, both of these scenarios face the challenge of ‘campaigning versus governing’. We think this can matter for markets.

 

Let’s start with the UK. The idea of ‘Brexit’ was always loosely defined during the referendum campaign. But now that it’s official policy, a choice needs to be made between ‘soft’ versions that still encourage trade and ‘hard’ versions that curtail immigration sharply. Picking one will invariably disappoint some supporters, while those originally opposed to Brexit will likely remain so.

 

There is little margin for error: the government’s majority is slim, and our economists think the effective deadline for reaching a deal may be as early as October 2018 (considering the time needed for ratification by various EU member states). Having been bullish on GBP earlier this year, our FX strategists would now be sellers, expecting increased press attention on these challenges to impact sentiment. They like being short GBPSEK and GBPEUR.

 

In the US, Congress will return Labor Day to face what my colleague Michael Zezas calls a “three-headed policy monster”: Raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget and embarking on tax reform. None are easy, but we see the debt ceiling as the most immediate test.

 

You may not have realised it, but the US Treasury hit its borrowing limit in March, is unable to issue new net debt, and has been operating by running down its cash balance. Our economists estimate that those reserves will be exhausted by mid-October. Since one doesn’t want to cut this too close, this ‘debt ceiling’ needs to be raised by the end of September.

 

That won’t be easy. A subset of Republicans in the House want to make additional borrowing conditional on spending cuts (an issue they’ve campaigned on). That could be a non-starter for the Senate, where bipartisan support will be needed to reach the 60 votes that this increase needs. The fractious nature of the health care debate likely hasn’t helped the level of trust between the Houses of Congress and the parties within them. And the ability of the White House to whip key votes could be impaired by low approval ratings and the continued fallout from comments related to last weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville, VA.

 

The most likely outcome is that, after some tension, the debt ceiling gets raised. But we don’t think it will be easy, or smooth, and it may require some form of market pressure to get different sides to fall in line. I’ve spoken to investors who are comforted by FOMC transcripts from 2011 that discussed prioritisation of debt payments in order to avoid default. I am not. First, I worry that this reduces the urgency of what remains a serious issue. Second, this prioritisation would require delaying payments to programmes like Social Security and Medicare, with real human and economic cost. And third, while the mechanics of this prioritisation may work, it is untested in a live environment.

 

There’s one more wrinkle: in the good scenario where the debt ceiling is increased, the Treasury will need to issue a lot of paper to claw back the cash balance that’s been drained during this process. Our US economists think that this could involve US$300-375 billion of T-Bill issuance in 4Q, a level with very limited historical precedent.

 

For investors, our interest rate strategists think that this should make it attractive to position for narrower 2-year swap spreads. If the debt ceiling is resolved, this flood of issuance could lead 2-year notes to underperform the swap. If it isn’t, the same result may be possible if investors temporarily avoid short-dated Treasury securities.

 

The idea that America’s creditworthiness is beyond reproach is, without exaggeration, the cornerstone of the global fixed income market. We hope that politicians appreciate the seriousness of this issue and put politics aside to resolve it. History is watching.

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