Debt Spotlight Slowly Turning Towards the US

The debt spotlight seems to be panning across the Atlantic from Europe to the United States.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in the US has warned that unless policymakers act, then growing budget deficits will cause debt to rise to unsupportable levels.

In fact it pointed out that U.S. government debt has grown so rapidly that, compared to the size of the economy, it is now higher than it has ever been except during the period around World War II.

In a similar vein, Moody's said that the US has no clear plan to address its debt burden and that if this continues the ratings agency may be tempted to downgrade America's credit rating.

A downgrade for the guarantor, the back-stop, the safe haven, the very beating heart of the financial system sounds like a frightening prospect.

Europe certainly knows how it feels to fall under the gaze of international bond markets. Even the CBO has warned about the possible consequences of a lack of confidence in the US government's ability to pay its debts. (Click for sovereign credit default swaps data)

They warn that to restore investors' confidence, policymakers would need to cut spending or boost taxes more drastically and painfully than if the adjustments had come sooner.

The UK's coalition government came to the same conclusion some weeks ago: do some austerity now, before the bond markets make you do more austerity tomorrow.

But the US is not like any other economy. How would a loss of confidence be expressed if Treasurys continue to be the world's safe-haven investment? (Click for government bonds data)

One way would be a crisis in tax-free municipal level debt (so-called "munis") or Build America Bonds, which are similar to munis but taxable. Worries at state level have centered around California, where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has already declared a state of emergency due to the crisis in his state's finances.

Politics of course will play a role here and analysts point out that with mid-term elections coming in November it is unlikely that the US will grasp the nettle of cutting spending until after then.

Some even suggest that real cuts might have to wait until after the Presidential elections in 2012. That seems a long way off so will the government's hand be forced?

As former Bill Clinton advisor James Carville once said, the bond markets can intimidate anybody.