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Debt Ceiling Impasse Rattles Short-Term Credit Markets

The reverberations of Washington’s impasse over a debt deal are already being felt in the short-term credit markets, a key artery of the economy that daily supplies trillions of dollars of credit.

Erik Snyder | Getty Images

Over the last week, big banks and companies have withdrawn $37.5 billion from money market funds that invest in Treasury debt and other ultra-safe securities, the biggest weekly drop this year. Meanwhile, in the vast market for repurchase agreements, in which many financial firms make short-term loans to one another, borrowers are beginning to demand higher yields.

These moves underscore how companies and big financial institutions are beginning to rethink their traditional view that notes issued by the United States Treasury are indistinguishable from cash, even though many experts say they think it is unlikely that the government would miss payments on its obligations.

The $37.5 billion drop, reported Thursday in a weekly survey by the Investment Company Institute, echoed what other analysts were seeing.

In the first three days of this week, investors pulled $17 billion from funds that invested only in government securities, a reversal of the daily inflows of $280 million for much of July, said Peter Crane, the president of Crane Data, which tracks money market mutual funds.

“It’s big, no doubt about it,” he said. “Seventeen billion isn’t a run, but it’s definitely indicative that investors are shifting their assets. If this were to continue for another week or two, it would be very disturbing.”

Though lawmakers have been clashing all week on proposals to cut the deficit and raise the debt limit ahead of an Aug. 2 deadline set by the Treasury Department, bond markets have largely shrugged off the risk of a default or a downgrade of the Washington’s AAA credit rating.

Interest rates on longer-term Treasuries have held steady, but the yield on notes coming due next week, after the deadline, has moved sharply higher in recent days. The yield on Treasury bills coming due Aug. 4 jumped five basis points to 15 basis points, a significant move for a security that carried a yield close to zero earlier this month, said Jim Caron, head of interest rate strategy at Morgan Stanley.

“It’s a tell-tale sign of something that could reverberate if it spreads to other markets, and all the uncertainty with the debt ceiling is the functional equivalent of a tightening,” Mr. Caron said. “I don’t think there is a default risk at all but the market is saying it’s not going to take any chances.”

While money market fund managers say they are not seeing a sizable wave of redemptions yet, they are setting aside more cash, leaving it at custodial bank accounts in case investors demand their money back. At Fidelity, the Boston-based firm that has $442 billion in money market assets, managers are avoiding Treasury bills that come due on Aug. 4 and Aug. 11, however unlikely a technical default may be.

“We are positioning our portfolio to respond to a downgrade or a default and we are positioning the fund to respond to redemptions,” said Robert Brown, president of money markets at Fidelity. Mr. Brown would not say how much cash was being kept at hand, but said “it’s a higher balance than one would expect to see.”

In the commercial paper market, where companies raise funds for their short-term borrowing needs, buyers are also seeking shorter-term paper.

In the last week, investors have shown signs of wanting quick access to their money, with financial borrowers raising on Wednesday only $1 million in notes that come due in 81 days or more, according to the Federal Reserve. That is down from $479 million on July 22.

At the same time, the amount of commercial paper issued with a duration of just one to four days rose to $920 million, from $771 million.

“Investors are scrambling to bolster their liquidity profile,” said Chris Conetta, head of global commercial paper trading at BarclaysCapital . “They understand that a default or downgrade could be a big, systemic event.”

In the repurchase market, known as the repo market, borrowers take loans and in exchange hand over a little more than the equivalent loan amount in securities. Because of their risk-free status, Treasuries are highly favored as collateral, estimated to account for about $4 trillion in the repo markets.

The fear is that if the United States credit rating drops, the value of those treasuries could respond in kind. Borrowers would then have to post more collateral to obtain their loans, effectively raising the cost of borrowing. That could ripple into the broader market, raising interest rates on all types of loans, analysts warn.

“The repo market is a pressure point because it can have an impact on overall credit availability, which bleeds through to mortgage rates,” said Robert Toomey, managing director at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. “Treasuries become a little less attractive if they are more expensive to finance.”

The overnight repo rate, which started the week at about three basis points, was about 17 basis points Thursday evening, according toCredit Suisse. That means that to finance $100 million overnight in the repo market it would now cost about $472 per day, up from about $83 on Monday.

“It’s a bigger deal than a lot of people recognize,” said Howard Simons, a strategist at Bianco Research, a bond market specialist. “If you downgrade the securities you have to put more up for collateral and that affects pretty much everybody out there who has held these in reserve. I don’t care if you’re a bank, insurance company, exchange or clearinghouse.”

To be sure, most observers say the ripples in the repo market will not be anything like those felt in the fall of 2008, when creditors lost faith in the ability of banks to pay back their short-term loans. That caused a problem for companies like General Electric, which struggled to finance its daily operations as a result. Back then, the sharp drop-off in repo lending helped bring the financial system to its knees.

“I think people are looking at the U.S. as the cleanest shirt in the dirty laundry pile,” said Jason New, a senior managing director at GSO Capital Partners.

“To me, the downgrade is not dropping a boulder in a still lake. This is dropping a pebble, but nevertheless there are still ripples.”

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