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Where are the cries from the ratings agencies?

September 26, 2013: 9:18 AM ET

Ratings agencies might have warned of a downgrade when Washington struggled to raise the debt limit in 2011, but they've been pretty quiet this time around. 

130925152145-standard-poors-620xaFORTUNE -- Yet again, the U.S. may be mere days away from a fiscal crisis. Almost everyone seems pretty freaked out about the possibility of a government shutdown, or worse, a default on the nation's debt if Washington can't get its act together.

Despite the drama, one critical segment of the U.S. economy appears to be snoozing through: Wall Street.

Days before Congress approaches its deadlines, stocks have risen; yields on the 10-year U.S. Treasury are at a very low 2.61% -- a sign there's still a decent appetite for America's debt despite all warning signs that it may crash and burn. This shouldn't be that surprising, though. In 2011, markets reacted similarly weeks before Congress struggled to raise the debt limit before an August deadline.

What's different this time is the way the credit ratings agencies have reacted -- or rather, haven't reacted at all.

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In 2011, the big three -- Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Fitch Ratings -- warned they would downgrade the U.S. if Washington failed to enact debt reduction measures. Only S&P actually went through with it, but so far in the latest debt ceiling drama, two of the big three firms have been pretty mum. Fitch has kept a negative outlook on U.S. debt since 2011 and has warned it could be in for a downgrade, while S&P and Moody's (MCO) maintain a stable outlook.

This may come as somewhat of a relief, but it's also disturbing in the sense that it suggests dysfunction on Capitol Hill is assumed to be the new normal. The U.S. might have avoided a default in the past, but it may not be as lucky down the road.

Over the summer, S&P and Moody's upgraded their outlooks from negative to stable, citing that the economy is growing moderately, and the deficit is falling. Unlike the past, neither agencies have warned of a downgrade, even as Congress approaches two crucial deadlines: One on Sept. 30, when lawmakers must pass a spending bill to keep the government running; the other Oct. 17, when the U.S. will run out of borrowing options to pay its bills, putting the country at imminent risk of default.

Failure to raise the debt limit would be worse than a government shutdown, according to a report by Moody's released Tuesday. The ratings agency expects the U.S. would avoid both outcomes, but if a shutdown does indeed happen, the government would still be able to service its debt. By contrast, if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, that would theoretically affect government spending as well as debt service.

Regardless, failure to meet both deadlines is unlikely to change the U.S. sovereign rating, a Moody's analyst tells Reuters.

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"At this time we don't see that (rating cut) as a consequence of these short-term events," said Steven Hess, Moody's lead U.S. sovereign credit analyst. "The rating is based more on the long-term outlook for the debt, rather than what we think will be short-term events," Hess added.

Even though S&P (MHFI) downgraded the U.S. two years ago, the firm doesn't plan to do it again, unless of course, the nation starts missing debt payments. "We have already incorporated into our rating this political discord," an S&P spokesperson says.

That may be, but the softer cries comes about a month after S&P accused the government for suing the firm in "retaliation" for stripping the U.S. of its stellar triple A rating in 2011.

It also follows countless doomsday warnings over the deficit that never really quite panned out. Remember when everyone seemed to warn that S&P's downgrade would rock markets and raise borrowing costs? Stocks slumped some, but it wasn't a disaster. Yields on Treasuries are lower and the U.S. dollar is stronger.

And remember when the automatic government spending cuts -- the sequester -- kicked in at the start of the year? Some warned it would stall the economic recovery, but that hasn't happened either. Stocks and home prices have continued rising. Maybe S&P and Moody's are right -- that Americans should expect political drama to unfold until the bitter end, because in the end, Congress will eventually agree on something. After all, on Wednesday night, senators struck a deal that could lower the chances of a government shutdown.

All this might just be luck, but it would be incredibly shortsighted if Washington needs a great big financial crisis before it gets its act together sooner rather than later.

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

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