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    Wall St. Is Counting on a Debt Limit Trick That Could Entail Trouble

    If the debt limit is breached, investors expect Treasury to put bond payments first. It’d be politically and practically fraught.Washington’s debt limit drama has Wall Street betting that the United States will employ a fallback option to ensure it can make good on payments to its lenders even if Congress doesn’t raise the nation’s borrowing limit before America runs out of cash.But that untested idea has significant flaws and has been ruled out by the Biden administration, which could make it less of a bulwark against disaster than many investors and politicians are counting on.Many on Wall Street believe that the Treasury Department, in order to avoid defaulting on U.S. debt, would “prioritize” payments on its bonds if it could no longer borrow funds to cover all its expenses. They expect that America’s lenders — the bondholders who own U.S. Treasury debt — would be first in line to receive interest and other payments, even if it meant delaying other obligations like government salaries or retirement benefits.Those assumptions are rooted in history. Records from 2011 and 2013 — the last time the U.S. tipped dangerously close to a debt limit crisis — suggested that officials at the Treasury had laid at least some groundwork to pay investors first, and that policymakers at the Federal Reserve assumed that such an approach was likely. Some Republicans in the House and Senate have painted prioritization as a fallback option that could make failure to raise the borrowing cap less of a disaster, arguing that as long as bondholders get paid, the U.S. will not experience a true default.But the Biden administration is not doing prioritization planning this time around because officials don’t think it would prevent an economic crisis and are unsure whether such a plan is even feasible. The White House has not asked Treasury to prepare for a scenario in which it pays back investors first, according to multiple officials. Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary, has said such an approach would not avoid a debt “default” in the eyes of markets.“Treasury systems have all been built to pay all of our bills when they’re due and on time, and not to prioritize one form of spending over another,” Ms. Yellen told reporters this month.Perhaps more worrisome is that, even if the White House ultimately succumbed to pressure to prioritize payments, experts from both political parties who have studied the temporary fix say it might not be enough to avert a financial catastrophe.Senator Ted Cruz, center, and other Republicans during a news conference on debt ceiling on Capitol Hill last week.Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times“Prioritization is really default by another name,” said Brian Riedl, formerly chief economist to former Republican Senator Rob Portman and now an economist at the Manhattan Institute. “It’s not defaulting on the government’s debt, but it’s defaulting on its obligations.”Congress must periodically raise the nation’s debt ceiling to authorize the Treasury to borrow to cover America’s commitments. Raising the limit does not entail any new spending — it is more like paying a credit-card bill for spending the nation has already incurred — and it is often completed without incident. But Republicans have occasionally attempted to attach future spending cuts or other legislative goals to debt limit increases, plunging the United States into partisan brinkmanship.Understand the U.S. Debt CeilingCard 1 of 5What is the debt ceiling? More

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    The U.S. Hit Its Debt Limit. What Happens Next?

    The Treasury Department has started employing “extraordinary measures,” but the path to raising the debt ceiling is likely to be a long one.The United States hit a limit this week on how much money it can borrow, forcing the Treasury Department to initiate so-called extraordinary measures to make sure the nation has enough cash to fulfill its financial obligations.Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has told lawmakers that those measures will allow the United States to keep paying military salaries, retiree benefits and interest to bondholders through at least early June.But initiating those extraordinary measures is just the first step in a series of moves that will take place as the Treasury tries to keep the United States from defaulting on its debt. Ultimately, it will be up to Congress to decide whether to let the country borrow more money or allow it to default on its debt by failing to pay investors who expect interest and other payments.At stake is the fate of the U.S. economy, which could face a financial crisis and fall into a deep recession if lawmakers cannot reach an agreement.Among the looming questions is when the United States will hit the so-called X-date — the point at which the government can no longer find creative ways to stay beneath the $31.4 trillion debt limit and will need to borrow more money or fail to pay its bills.The other big question: Will Congress agree to raise the borrowing cap?So far, House Republicans have vowed to oppose any increase in the debt limit without spending cuts. President Biden has said the debt limit needs to be raised without conditions. That has set up what could be a protracted fight to ensure that the United States does not default on its debt.Here are some of the key moments to expect over the next few months.A Spring Budget BattleThe White House is expected to unveil its annual budget proposal in early March, outlining Mr. Biden’s spending priorities. That could serve as an opening bid for any negotiations between the Biden administration and Republicans in Congress, who have been calling for spending cuts and are likely to seize on this document as evidence of what they say is “runaway spending.”Understand the U.S. Debt CeilingCard 1 of 5What is the debt ceiling? More

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    America Set to Hit Its Borrowing Limit Today, Raising Economic Fears

    The milestone will not immediately affect markets or growth, but it sets the stage for months of entrenched partisan warfare.WASHINGTON — The United States is expected to hit a congressionally imposed borrowing limit on Thursday, requiring the Treasury Department to engage in accounting maneuvers to ensure the federal government can keep paying its bills.The milestone of hitting the country’s $31.4 trillion debt cap is the product of decades of tax cuts and increased government spending by both Republicans and Democrats. But at a moment of heightened partisanship and divided government, it is also a warning of the entrenched partisan battles that are set to dominate Washington in the months to come, and that could end in economic shock.Newly empowered Republicans in the House have vowed that they will not raise the borrowing limit again unless President Biden agrees to steep cuts in federal spending. Mr. Biden has said he will not negotiate conditions for a debt-limit increase, arguing that lawmakers should lift the cap with no strings attached to cover spending that previous Congresses authorized.Treasury officials estimate the measures that they will begin employing on Thursday will enable the government to keep paying federal workers, Medicare providers, investors who hold U.S. debt and other recipients of federal dollars at least until early June. But economists warn that the nation risks a financial crisis and other immediate economic pain if lawmakers do not raise the limit before the Treasury Department exhausts its ability to buy more time.The episode has prompted fears in part because of the lessons both parties have taken from more than a decade of debt-limit fights. A bout of brinkmanship in 2011 between House Republicans and President Barack Obama nearly ended in the United States defaulting on its debt before Mr. Obama agreed to a set of caps on future spending increases in exchange for lifting the limit.Most Democrats have solidified in their position that negotiations over the debt limit only enhance the risks of economic calamity by encouraging Republicans to use it as leverage. That is particularly true of Mr. Biden, who successfully stared down Republicans and won an increase in 2021 with no stipulations.Newly elected Republicans, emboldened by anger among their base and conservative advocacy groups over failures in the past to exact concessions for raising the limit, have pledged not to let that happen again.Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has dismissed ideas for lifting the borrowing cap unilaterally, such as minting a $1 trillion coin, as fanciful.Sarahbeth Maney/The New York TimesIn reality, both parties have approved policies that fueled the growth in government borrowing. Republicans repeatedly passed tax cuts when they controlled the White House over the last 20 years. Democrats have expanded spending programs that have often not been fully offset by tax increases. Both parties have voted for large economic aid packages to help people and businesses endure the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 pandemic recession.Federal spending declined from its pandemic high in 2022, reaching nearly $6 trillion in the fiscal year, or just under 24 percent of the economy. The federal budget deficit, which is the shortfall between what the United States spends and what it takes in through taxes and other revenue, topped $1 trillion for the year. That is a decline from the past two years as emergency pandemic spending expired, though the Biden administration predicts the deficit will rise again in the current fiscal year.Understand the U.S. Debt CeilingCard 1 of 4What is the debt ceiling? More

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    How ‘Extraordinary Measures’ Can Postpone a Debt Limit Disaster

    Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen will soon need to use accounting maneuvers to keep the United States from defaulting on its debt.WASHINGTON — The United States is expected to hit a cap on how much money it can borrow this week, a development that will result in the Treasury Department employing what are known as “extraordinary measures” to ensure that the federal government has enough money to pay its bills.The United States runs a budget deficit, which means it does not take in enough money through taxes and other revenue to fund its operations. As a result, the country sells Treasury debt to finance its operations — using borrowed money to fund military salaries, retiree benefits and interest payments to bondholders who own U.S. debt.But Congress limits the amount of money the federal government can borrow — what’s known as the “debt limit” — and the United States is expected to hit the current cap of $31.4 trillion on Thursday.As a result, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen told Congress last week that the administration would try to keep the country under that debt cap and able to finance its operations as long as possible by using “extraordinary measures.”While the term suggests that such tools are intended to be used on rare occasions, Treasury secretaries from both parties have recently had to rely such accounting maneuvers to allow the government to continue its operations for limited periods.What are extraordinary measures?When the country comes close to — or hits — the statutory debt limit, the Treasury secretary can find ways to shift money around government accounts to remain under the borrowing cap, essentially buying time for Congress to raise the cap.That includes seeking out ways to reduce what counts against the debt limit, such as suspending certain types of investments in savings plans for government workers and health plans for retired postal workers. The Treasury can also temporarily move money between government agencies and departments to make payments as they come due. And it can suspend the daily reinvestment of securities held by the Treasury’s Exchange Stabilization Fund, a bucket of money that can buy and sell currencies and provide financing to foreign governments.After the debt limit impasse ends, programs whose investments were suspended are supposed to be “made whole.”In the event that the statutory debt limit is breached, the Treasury Department broadly looks for ways to reduce different types of debt that the government incurs so that it can continue to pay its obligations on time. This allows the Treasury Department to reinforce its cash reserves without having to issue new debt.Ms. Yellen said last week that she first plans to take two steps to buy lawmakers more time to reach a debt limit deal. She will redeem existing investments and suspend new investments in the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund and the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund. And she will suspend reinvestment of the Government Securities Investment Fund of the Federal Employees Retirement System Thrift Savings Plan.Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen says she expects to have to start deploying some of the tools as soon as Thursday, when the $31.4 trillion borrowing cap is expected to be technically breached.Adam Perez for The New York TimesWhat happens if a standoff persists?If the initial steps that Ms. Yellen has outlined are not enough, there are other tools at her disposal.A 2012 Government Accountability Office report said that to manage debt when the borrowing cap is in limbo, the Treasury secretary could suspend investments in the Exchange Stabilization Fund. Typically, funds that are not being used for those purposes are invested in Treasury securities that are subject to the debt limit, so halting these investments creates some additional wiggle room.The Treasury Department also oversees the Federal Financing Bank, which can issue up to $15 billion of its own debt that is not subject to the debt limit. In a debt ceiling emergency, Ms. Yellen could exchange that debt for other debt that does count against the limit.Another option would be for the Treasury Department to suspend new issuance of State and Local Government Series securities. The Government Accountability Office said such a move would reduce “uncertainty over future increases in debt subject to the limit.”Are there risks to using extraordinary measures?Delaying the debt limit does not come without costs.Suspending certain investments can cost the federal government money in the longer term, and running the country on fumes can lead to market volatility.“Debt limit impasses have also repeatedly disrupted implementation of Treasury’s cash management policy — with knock-on effects for money markets,” Joshua Frost, assistant Treasury secretary for financial markets, explained in a speech in December.Mr. Frost added that the Treasury Department usually has a daily cash balance of $600 billion to $700 billion, but that during the 2021 debt limit standoff, there were days when it grew painfully close to zero. Such situations can force the Treasury Department to undertake risky moves such as issuing same-day cash management bills or conducting buybacks.“There were several instances when we didn’t have sufficient cash on hand to meet even our next-day obligations,” Mr. Frost, who spoke at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Annual Primary Dealers Meeting, said. “During the course of that impasse, Secretary Yellen wrote eight separate letters to Congress regarding the importance of acting to address the debt limit.”How long do extraordinary measures last?The timeline for using these measures is uncertain.Christopher Campbell, who served as assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions from 2017 to 2018, said that because there so many variables in play, it is often difficult to give a precise estimate of the grace period between when the debt limit is breached and when the United States potentially defaults on its obligations.“It depends on receipts, it depends on how the economy is doing, it depends on how companies are doing,” Mr. Campbell said. “There are some shell games and accounting games that go into it.”The Bipartisan Policy Center said in a 2021 report that the timing of when the debt limit hits plays a role in how long extraordinary measures might last. Big government expenses in February could mean that X-date, when the government runs out of cash, comes sooner than anticipated, while robust April tax receipts could buy more time for extraordinary measures to keep the lights on.In her letter to Congress, Ms. Yellen said ominously that “Treasury is not currently able to provide an estimate of how long extraordinary measures will enable us to continue to pay the government’s obligations.” She then surmised that it is unlikely that cash and extraordinary measures will be exhausted before early June. More

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    As Debt Ceiling Threat Looms, Wall Street and Washington Have Only Rough Plans

    A default would most likely rattle markets and carry big risks, no matter how the Federal Reserve and Treasury try to curb the fallout.With days to go before the United States bumps up against a technical limit on how much debt it can issue, Wall Street analysts and political prognosticators are warning that a perennial source of partisan brinkmanship could finally tip into outright catastrophe in 2023.Big investors and bank economists are using financial models to predict when the United States, which borrows money to pay its existing bills, will run out of cash. They are assessing what it could mean if the government is unable to pay some of its bondholders and the country defaults on its debt. And they are gaming out how to both minimize risks and make the most of any opportunities to profit that might be hiding in the chaos.The need to start planning for a potential debt limit breach became more urgent last week, when Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen told Congress that the United States would hit its borrowing cap on Thursday. At that point, Treasury will begin using “extraordinary measures” to try to stay under the cap for as long as possible — but those options could be exhausted as soon as June.Congress places a limit on the amount of debt the country can issue, with a simple majority in the House and Senate required to lift it. That cap, currently $31.4 trillion, needs to be adjusted to allow the United States to borrow to pay for obligations it has already committed to, such as funding for social safety net programs, interest on the national debt and salaries for troops.Wrangling over lifting the borrowing cap has become a fixture, and this year is shaping up to be particularly complicated. Republicans hold the House by a slim majority, and a small but vocal faction of the party has won changes to the rules that govern legislative debate. They have made clear that they want deep spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit, and their empowerment could make this round of negotiations more likely to end in disaster.Bank of America analysts wrote in a note to clients this week that a default in late summer or early fall is “likely,” while Goldman Sachs called the possibility that the government would not be able to make good on its bills a “greater risk” than at any time since 2011. When the nation approached the brink in that episode, its credit rating was downgraded and wild market gyrations helped to force lawmakers to blink.A debt default would most likely rattle markets and carry big risks.Andrew Kelly/ReutersIn Washington, the Federal Reserve and Treasury are not publicly speaking about what they could do if an outright default were to happen this time, in part because the mere suggestion they will bail out warring politicians could leave lawmakers with less of an incentive to reach a deal. But they have a series of options — albeit bad ones — for mitigating the disaster if political impasse takes the nation up to or over the brink of default.It is tricky to guess exactly how financial markets will react, both because the timing of any default is uncertain and because many investors are waiting and watching to see what happens in Washington.But former government officials and cautious Wall Street observers warn that the effects could be significant. Markets have grown bigger and more complex since 2011, and an outright default could lead to mass selling, which would impair financial functioning. While the government has done contingency planning for a default, former officials say there is no foolproof option for staving off a disaster.Understand the U.S. Debt CeilingCard 1 of 4What is the debt ceiling? More

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    U.S. Will Hit Debt Limit on Thursday, Yellen Tells Congress

    The Treasury Department expects to begin taking “extraordinary measures” to continue paying the government’s obligations before what is expected to be a big fight to raise the borrowing cap.WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen warned on Friday that she would have to begin employing “extraordinary measures” on Thursday to continue paying the nation’s bills if lawmakers did not act to raise the statutory debt limit and that her powers to delay a default could be exhausted by early June.Ms. Yellen’s letter to Congress was the first sign that resistance by House Republicans to lifting the borrowing cap could put the U.S. economy at risk and signals the beginning of an intense fight in Washington this year over spending and deficits.“Failure to meet the government’s obligations would cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy, the livelihoods of all Americans and global financial stability,” Ms. Yellen wrote.Ms. Yellen said on Friday that considerable uncertainty surrounded how long she could use measures to delay a default. She said she would begin suspending new investments in the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund and the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund and suspending reinvestment of the Government Securities Investment Fund of the Federal Employees Retirement System Thrift Savings Plan this month to avoid breaching the debt limit.The letter is the beginning of what is expected to be a protracted and potentially damaging economic fight. Republicans, who assumed control of the House last week, have insisted that any increase to the debt limit be accompanied by significant spending curbs, most likely including cuts to both the military and domestic issues.Speaker Kevin McCarthy has cited reducing the national debt — which topped $31 trillion last year and has increased during both Republican and Democratic administrations, including about a 40 percent increase under former President Donald J. Trump — as a central focus of his party’s agenda.“The American people are the ones that’s demanding the cut in spending,” Representative Jason Smith, a Missouri Republican and the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said Friday on Fox News. “We have to have fiscal reforms moving forward. We cannot just give an unlimited credit card.”Understand the U.S. Debt CeilingCard 1 of 4What is the debt ceiling? More

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    Which Electric Vehicles Qualify for Federal Tax Credits?

    Here is a partial list of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles that will qualify for federal tax credits in 2023.The Treasury Department on Thursday published a partial list of new electric and plug-in hybrid cars that will qualify for tax credits of up to $7,500. The list is expected to be updated over the coming days and weeks.The credits will apply to sedans that cost no more than $55,000 and sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks that cost up to $80,000. In addition, only buyers who earn less than $150,000 a year as an individual or $300,000 a year as a couple can claim the credits.The list could change in March, when new rules take effect that require automakers to use battery raw materials and components from North America or a trade ally. Those rules are still being formulated, and it’s not clear exactly when they will start to apply.Here are the cars on the list, by automaker:AudiQ5 TFSI e Quattro plug-in hybridFord MotorFord Escape Plug-in HybridFord E-TransitFord F-150 LightningFord Mustang Mach-ELincoln Aviator Grand Touring plug-in hybridLincoln Corsair Grand Touring plug-in hybridNissanLeafRivianR1TR1SStellantisChrysler Pacifica plug-in hybridJeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybridJeep Grand Cherokee 4xe plug-in hybridTeslaModel 3Model YVolkswagenID.4VolvoVolvo S60 plug-in hybrid More

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    Yellen Is First Female Treasury Secretary With Signature on U.S. Dollar

    Two women — the first female Treasury secretary and the first Native American to serve as U.S. treasurer — now have their signatures on America’s currency.WASHINGTON — During a recent appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen faced an awkward question: After nearly two years in the job, why was the signature of her predecessor, Steven T. Mnuchin, still scrawled across the nation’s currency?The answer, she explained, was a quirk of currency design that required a new treasurer of the United States to be in place before the money could be remade with both of their signatures.That finally happened on Thursday when the first bank notes bearing the name of America’s first female Treasury secretary were unveiled. The occasion was another crack in the glass ceiling for Ms. Yellen and the notoriously male-dominated field of economics.The bills will also bear the name of Marilynn Malerba, the first Native American to hold the role of treasurer. The first $1 and $5 notes with their signatures will enter circulation next month.Ms. Yellen, who has previously served as the Federal Reserve chair and the head of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, said on Thursday that having her name on the currency was more than a personal career achievement.“Today is not about me or a new signature on our currency,” Ms. Yellen said during a visit to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s about our collective work to create a stronger and more inclusive economy.”Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More