"A Cloud of Contagion": States, Cities, and Federal Default

The Pew Center on the States has released a new report examining the impact a potential federal default would have on state and municipal governments. The picture isn't pretty.

According to Pew, "A federal default could have a serious impact on states and cities by constricting their borrowing and budgets while they are still feeling the aftershocks of the Great Recession." Loss of faith in federal debt securities could have a knock-on effect on government debt at all levels, causing jittery ratings agencies to downgrade state and local credit ratings in turn. One ratings agency, Moody's, has already warned that up to 7000 municipalities could see their bond ratings lowered in the wake of a federal default, and has placed five currently AAA rated states on a downgrade watch list. Ratings downgrades would lead to increased borrowing costs for state and local governments, restricting their long-term ability to finance desperately needed infrastructure upgrades.

In addition to raising borrowing costs, a federal default could also directly impact federal program dollars currently allocated to state and local governments. According to Pew, such transfers amounted to "$478 billion in 2010 alone." States and municipalities, already stressed by years of budget challenges, might suddenly find themselves even more cash strapped. In addition, the report points out that the suspension of federal payments to individuals, such as social security recipients and government contractors, could cause a drop in state and local tax receipts as individual incomes drop and commerce slows. While Pew feels states and local governments are "highly unlikely" to face a shutdown as a result of a federal default, they could be left scrambling to find alternative funding sources to cover already budgeted expenses they were expecting to meet with federal support.