Financial Planning Tips for a U.S. Debt Default

Some personal finance advice if the global economy blows up in 11 days

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With the deadline to raise the U.S. borrowing limit less than two weeks away, you might be thinking about what to do with your money if the U.S. government defaults on its debt. Wall Street is already thinking about it, which means the rest of us should probably have a look in our own accounts just to make sure we're ready for something unexpected. Of course, that's tough to do since a U.S. default is unprecedented (well, mostly unprecedented). So what should you be doing with your money over the next 11 days?

Get some cash ready: A lot of uncertainty means you need a backup plan, and that generally means cash on hand. As USA Today's John Waggoner points out, stock, bond, and commodity markets will likely become much more volatile. "If you're tired of the roller coaster, consider moving some — not all — of your portfolio into short-term money market securities or bank accounts. You should have enough cash available for your short-term living expenses, anyway." But if you're very scared, a few hundred bucks in the mattress, at least temporarily, might at least give you peace of mind. Slate's David Johnson warns of a "massive run into cash, on an order not seen since the Great Depression, with long lines of people at ATMs and teller windows withdrawing as much as possible," should the nation default. That may be a bit over-dramatic but the point is well-made: Banks could become unstable as the bonds that support them lose value. If your bank closes with your money inside, and the government can't afford to pay the insurance on it, you're screwed.

If you're looking to park a lot of cash, think about a savings account for now: Provided you're not too scared of  banks folding and money disappearing into thin air by the trillions, a bit of a government downgrade might actually help your investment-bearing vehicles like savings accounts, money-market accounts, and CDs. These have been pretty unpopular of late as the Federal Reserve pushes down interest rates to try to stimulate job growth. But a default would mean higher interest rates overall, which could give you a steady return in a time when market turmoil threatens stock-based college and retirement accounts. Plus, with gold having touched a record $1,600 an ounce this week, the precious metal and standard safeguard may very well may have topped out.

But don't cash out your 401(k): A scary article from Reuters' Steve Johnson says those stock-based retirement and college accounts could fall by as much as 50 percent if a default really rattles the economy. But the Associated Press's Dave Carpenter points out that we just learned this lesson in the 2008 crisis. "Most investors who had diversified portfolios in 2008 and stuck with them have made up their losses, despite a 57 percent drop in the Standard & Poor’s 500 from its peak in October 2007 to the market bottom in March 2009." Unless you're going to retire in a year or so, it's probably not worth the enormous tax penalty to cash out retirement accounts.

Don't shun government bonds: One of the big fears in the case of a U.S. default is that government bonds will "break the buck." That is, that they won't return all the money you paid into them. But that risk doesn't mean you have to get out of them entirely, or forget about investing in them again. For one thing, you probably already have some money in bonds, and as former treasury undersecretary Jay Powell told CBS last week, the government will still try to pay off its interest first, even in the event of a default. It probably woulnd't be the wisest choice to invest heavily in bonds in the next two weeks, but plenty of pundits think a little money in the government wouldn't be the dumbest choice, either. As Colin Barr pointed out in Fortune and Jack Hough noted in Smart Money, foreigners have been increasing their holdings in government bonds of late, signalling that the view from overseas is that they're not such a bad investment. Hough points to municipal bonds' "tax-free yields of 3.2% on 10-year, A-rated issues," and the Associated Press's Dave Carpenter advises treasury bills with a maturity of six months of less. "Look for those maturing sometime after August. Their short-term nature means their prices are less affected by an increase in interest rates. That’s because investors will receive their principal investment before there are larger changes in the economy."

Check out ways a default could pay off: Some people know how to make money out of volatile market conditions. Without advising recklessness, it would be worth looking into some of the suggestions on how to make a tough financial time pay. Waggoner recommends investing in volatility via exchange-traded funds such as those based on the Chicago Board Options Volatility Index. Some of those funds are actually designed to rise when the stock and treasury markets fall. Gold, which hit a record high this week, would probably continue to go up, but it's pretty gutsy to think it'll go higher. Also remember, if you have money in accounts that pay interest, such as savings or CDs, you may actually benefit from an uptick in overall rates, provided, of course, that your bank stays open.

Batten down your credit: This is no-brainer advice economic turmoil or not, but we'll say it anyway. Do try to avoid getting into big new credit obligations, especially ones with variable interest rates, in the next 11 days. The credit system faces some big risks in the case of a government default, as Slate's Simon Johnson points out. "The fundamental benchmark interest rates in modern financial markets are the so-called risk-free rates on government bonds. Removing this pillar of the system—or creating a high degree of risk around U.S. Treasuries—would disrupt many private contracts and all kinds of transactions." That means it will be harder to get credit after a default, and the loans you have out may see their interest rates rise. It also means businesses will have a hard time maintaining cash flow, points out Miranda at Personal Dividends, which could lead to layoffs. Make sure you have some cash on hand as a rainy day fund even when the future of the economy isn't in the hands of Congress.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.