How Elites Could Profit From a U.S. Debt Crisis

As Wall Street knows, there are ways to profit from disaster.

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Have you developed a hedging strategy to protect against America's rapid decline? Or repositioned your portfolio to take advantage of orphaned Treasury securities? Or stashed some cash so you can buy distressed assets from the newly bankrupt?

[See who to blame for the debt fiasco.]

If you're like most Americans, the answer is, of course not. But if you work on Wall Street, the man-made debt crisis that's brewing in Washington might represent a surprising opportunity to make money. As the whole world knows by now, the U.S. government will no longer be able to borrow money as of early August, unless Republicans and Democrats swallow their vitriol and come up with a compromise deal that will begin dealing with America's oversized debt and allow the government to function normally. The nation's mushrooming debt load is a big problem, but abruptly halting all federal borrowing would transform it into a disaster, since it would require vast government spending cuts that would promptly trigger another recession.

The ongoing assumption is that legislators will puff and posture until the last second, then congratulate themselves for making a deal that should have been in place months ago. But even if politicians avert the worst-case scenario, the size of the debt and the deep dysfunction in the nation's capital are likely to cause other trouble. It's increasingly likely, for instance, that rating agencies like Moody's and Standard & Poor's will cut America's credit rating from AAA—the top rating, which the United States has held for decades—to a notch or two lower. That would force thousands of institutional investors to determine whether they can keep holding Treasury securities or whether they need to dump them. Even small spending cuts that come as part of a deal to raise the federal borrowing limit could cut into weak economic growth, especially if they go into effect immediately.

The knock-on effects of a U.S. debt downgrade, sharp spending cuts or a "policy mistake" in Washington could rattle financial markets, depress hiring and drive confidence back down to recessionary levels. But smart investors know that one man's crisis is another's opportunity, and the monied class is planning how to profit if America goes bust. As the New York Times reported recently, some hedge funds are stockpiling cash, to buy U.S. government securities at fire-sale prices if there's a credit downgrade and conservative investing vehicles like pension or money-market funds are forced to dump Treasuries. Others are trying to identify institutions that might be damaged by a U.S. debt crisis and forced to sell assets that vulture investors could buy on the cheap. Another way to gamble on America's collapse is to invest in credit-default swaps that would pay out if the United States defaults on its debt. The price of such insurance has doubled recently, indicating a lively market for bets against America.

[See who will suffer if there's no debt deal.]

The modern financial markets are sophisticated casinos that allow steely investors to gamble on almost anything, including gloom-and-doom scenarios that could potentially harm millions. Though it might sound unctuous, betting on the likelihood of adverse events is a healthy part of a free market, because it creates an even stronger incentive for those who would suffer from bad outcomes to prevent them—and punishes those who destroy value, such as CEOs who mismanage their companies. But it doesn't always work that way, and besides, this kind of gambling is generally open only to professional investors or those wealthy enough to have experts handling their money.

In his 2010 financial disclosure forms, for instance, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor listed a small investment in a fund that bets against U.S. Treasury securities and would benefit if the U.S. government defaulted or something else happened that devalued Treasuries. That became controversial, since Cantor is one of the key Republicans involved in the debt negotiations and a conservative stalwart who insists there should be no new taxes as part of a deal. Cantor's office says the fund is in his wife's and his mother-in-law's name and amounts to less than $4,000, while the vast majority of Cantor's retirement savings are invested in conventional securities that would lose value if there were a true U.S. debt crisis. But Cantor's portfolio is probably similar to those of other affluent Americans, with traditional investments offset by a hedging strategy meant to minimize losses if something profoundly bad happens.

[See how a debt downgrade would harm America.]

Ordinary Americans who lack investment funds or live paycheck-to-paycheck don't have much of a hedging strategy, however, which makes them directly vulnerable if Washington wrecks the economy and jobs gets even scarcer. Some economists think the drawn-out debt drama—and the near-total absence of action on other big problems, like the foreclosure epidemic or sky-high unemployment—is already causing harm. Businesses, for instance, have virtually stopped hiring while they await the outcome of the Washington Follies. A sliding stock market reflects jittery investors who can't figure out if they should invest in a global recovery or gird for Armageddon. "Washington is locked in a budget war that will determine the U.S. economy's fate, not only for this year and next but for generations," writes economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics. "Lawmakers may well misstep on this path to fiscal sustainability." If they do, many of them will no doubt have their own personal parachutes. If possible, get your own.

Twitter: @rickjnewman

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