Fitch Issues Credit Warning on US as Debt Ceiling Talks Drag On

Rating agency doesn’t believe the U.S. will ultimately default, but delays show ongoing risk to nation’s creditworthiness

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) talks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol.

Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

One of the top three ratings agencies issued a credit warning for the United States Wednesday as debt-ceiling negotiations slowed, adding more pressure to lawmakers ahead of the June 1 deadline. 

Key Takeaways

  • Fitch issues “Ratings Watch Negative” on U.S.’s AAA Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating.
  • The rating agency said “brinkmanship” over a debt-ceiling extension was increasing the risk of default ahead of June 1 deadline.
  • If the U.S. defaulted on its debt obligations, the country's bond ratings could drop from AAA to potential C and D classifications.

Fitch placed the U.S.’s AAA Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating on “rating watch negative,” indicating that it could cut the government’s rating if the debt-ceiling issue is not adequately resolved. While the ratings agency said it believed a deal would be reached, the delays in negotiations increase the risks of a U.S. default.

Stock markets have been in decline this week as lawmakers continue to negotiate over a deal that would raise the U.S. debt limit. The U.S. Treasury estimates the government could run short of funding to meet its obligations—which includes servicing the debt on its bonds—as early as June 1. 

“The Rating Watch Negative reflects increased political partisanship that is hindering reaching a resolution to raise or suspend the debt limit despite the fast-approaching x date,” Fitch wrote.

In its note, Fitch points to future problems with U.S. creditworthiness, regardless of how the current debt-ceiling negotiations are resolved.

“The brinkmanship over the debt ceiling, failure of the U.S. authorities to meaningfully tackle medium-term fiscal challenges that will lead to rising budget deficits and a growing debt burden signal downside risks to U.S. creditworthiness,” the Fitch note said.

Fitch also gave some details as to how it would approach its ratings towards the U.S. if negotiations were to extend beyond the June 1 deadline that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has laid out.

If the U.S. were to prioritize payment of its bonds over other government payments, like social security checks and government employee pay, that would not be a default in Fitch’s view, the note said, but it would still likely drop its rating below AAA. Experts have raised questions as to whether the U.S. can legally prioritize bond payments over other financial obligations.

Should the U.S. not make payments on its bonds, that would be a default, the ratings note said, resulting in a change to “Restricted Default” and corresponding CCC, C and D ratings for U.S. debt securities. 

During the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations, which were ultimately successfully resolved without a default, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. from its highest AAA rating to AA+, a rating that the U.S. still holds to this day. 

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  1. Fitch Ratings. “Fitch Places United States' 'AAA' on Rating Watch Negative.”

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