“The hardest thing when studying history is that you know how the story ends, which makes it impossible to put yourself in people’s shoes and imagine what they were thinking or feeling in the past.” — Morgan Housel.
We can count ourselves fortunate to be blessed with the benefit of hindsight before it was due. While the U.S. Treasury was set to exhaust its ‘extraordinary measures’ to manage the national debt as early as the revised deadline of June 5, calmer and more rational heads prevailed in Washington D.C., albeit at the eleventh hour.
President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed to suspend the current $31.4 trillion statutory debt ceiling until January 1, 2025, in exchange for discretionary spending caps for six years, conditional on the approval of Congress.
While fractiousness, delays, and hiccups are still expected in the legislature amid some opposition from Republican Freedom Caucus and progressives in the Democratic Party, it seems highly likely that we will be out of the woods by the end of this week and manage to sweep the mushrooming national debt under the rug once again.
However, we imagine a scenario in which the responsibility to ensure economic stability would have been undermined in the interest of power tussles, communication breakdown, and zero (or negative) sum game. We imagine how the situation would have unraveled (it still could) had the world’s richest economy, which also issues the global reserve currency, run out of cash and failed to meet its obligations.
While envisioning what Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has termed an “economic catastrophe” if the United States wouldn’t be able to pay its dues and alternatives, ranging from the gimmicky minting of the trillion-dollar platinum coin to more serious options such as invoking the 14th Amendment, fail, we discuss three antifragile stocks that could have gained from the disorder.
Since Murphy’s Law states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, the investments could come in handy if and when history (of debt-ceiling negotiations) fails to repeat itself.
The Worst-Case Scenario
Most businesses and economies globally operate on a key and time-tested assumption that the U.S. government always pays its debts. Hence, while fixed-income investors look for instruments that promise returns commensurate to their inherent credit risk, U.S. Treasury bonds are considered free of such risks and promise the lowest rates of interest and yields.
Consequently, U.S. government debt acts as a benchmark against which almost all other debtors price the cost of their borrowings while raising capital by issuing debt. Short-term government debt is equivalent to cash since nothing else is considered safer and pays less.
Hence, U.S. treasury bonds and bills have become a mainstay of risk-free component portfolios of individuals, businesses, banks, and even foreign governments.
A debt-ceiling debacle could impact the bonds and, by extension, the broader economy in two ways.
Even if the government does not default, a drawn-out deadlock between both sides of the aisle could increase anxiety among investors about the creditworthiness of the bonds in which they have parked their money. The Big Three credit rating agencies could share similar concerns and downgrade the US AAA credit rating like S&P did back in 2011, the last time it got this far and came this close.
Worse, however, if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling and the U.S government misses its payment to its suppliers, employees, beneficiaries of social security, etc., it could trigger a mild recession in an economy that has been battered by persistent inflation and overburdened with increasing borrowing costs to contain the inflation.
In the worst-case scenario, if the government misses its payment to the investors holding its bonds, it would be considered a default, and all hell could break loose. With the safety of the benchmark out of the window, the bonds could significantly depreciate in value, thereby leading to a surge in demanded yield and interest rates, as was being teased by the ominously climbing treasury yields and falling AAA-rated corporate bond yields.
Such a catastrophe could trigger massive hikes in borrowing costs, which could effectively bring the economy to a standstill and trigger a financial crisis comparable in proportions to that in 2008. That could lead to a loss of more than 7 million jobs and $10 trillion in household wealth and trigger various higher-order effects, with shockwaves spreading throughout the global financial system.
Safe Havens and Insurances
Now that we have stared into the abyss, here are a few stocks that could protect and perhaps even increase investors’ wealth amid a market turmoil.
NEE is an electric power and energy infrastructure company that operates through FPL and NEER segments.
While the economy has been overheated with persistent inflation and weighed down by aggressive interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve to counter the former, on May 19, NEE’s segment FPL proposed a $256 million rate reduction with the Florida Public Service Commission to take effect in July.
The rate reduction aims to pass on the benefit of reduced fuel costs due to continued downward revisions in projected natural gas costs for 2023. In this context, macroeconomic turmoil would have benefited the company by helping it improve its bottom line through greater savings from plummeting fuel prices.
The international energy giant is Warren Buffett’s new love, with Bershike Hathaway Inc. (BRK)upping its stake to 24.4%. The company assets are primarily in the United States, the Middle East, and North Africa. It operates through three segments: oil and gas; chemical; and midstream and marketing.
Due to strong operational performance during the first quarter of the fiscal year 2023, OXY’s production of 1,220 Mboed exceeded the mid-point of guidance by 40 Mboed. As a result, the company reported an adjusted income attributable to common stockholders of $1.1 billion, or $1.09 per diluted share, and raised its full-year production guidance to 1,195 Mboed.
A debt default by the U.S. would have resulted in the devaluation of the currency. This would play into the hands of OXY, which would have benefited from the dual tailwind of the increased dollar-denominated price of crude oil and favorable exchange rates for more lucrative exports.
BTG is a low-cost international gold producer based in Vancouver, Canada. It has three operating mines: Fekola Mine in Mali; the Masbate Mine in the Philippines; and the Otjikoto Mine in Namibia. In addition, it has numerous exploration and development projects in Canada, Mali, the Philippines, Namibia, Colombia, Finland, and Uzbekistan.
The extent to which markets have been on edge over the state of the global economy that even ten interest-rate hikes by the Federal Reserve in just over a year haven’t been able to diminish the luster of gold. Despite the historical negative correlation of the yellow metal with the global reserve currency, the demand for gold from central banks worldwide totaled 1,136 tonnes in 2022.
Recession fears, bank failures, sovereign debt-default risks, de-dollarization, geopolitical conflicts, and the odd black-swan events are all expected to keep gold shining in the foreseeable future.