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Syria's Impact on the Debt Ceiling

When President Obama first announced his intention to seek congressional approval for a limited strike on Syria, we knew it would be an uphill fight, but getting passage in both houses seems like it may be exceedingly difficult. The President's all-out PR push is reflective of this. On Monday, Obama is doing six national interviews to attempt to rally public support for a limited strike. Then on Tuesday, he will address the nation, likely from the Oval Office, a place from which he has only spoken twice. These actions would not be undertaken if the President believed Congress would support authorization.

Obama is appealing to the American public in an attempt to sway upside-down public opinion, which in turn has limited congressional appetite for a strike. According to the most recent whip count, approximately 20 Senators support a strike; 60 is needed for passage. Even worse, only 25 members of the House support a strike out of a needed 218. By the hour, more lawmakers seem to come out in opposition from the strike. Worse, these lawmakers are relative moderates (i.e. Lamar Alexander, Mark Pryor and Heidi Heitkamp) whom the President needs if he is going to hit the required vote totals. Currently, 164 members of the House are publicly against the measure with 244 undecided. Two real-time detailed whip counts can be found here and here.

Unless President Obama can totally change a reluctant public's perception of another Middle-Eastern conflict, it seems unlikely that he can get 218 votes in the House, though he can probably still squeak out 60 votes in the Senate. This defeat would be totally unprecedented as a President has never lost a military authorization vote in American history. To forbid the Commander-in-Chief of his primary power renders him all but impotent. At this point, a rebuff from the House is a 67%-75% probability.

I reach this probability by looking within the whip count. I assume the 164 declared "no" votes will stay in the "no" column. To get to 218, Obama needs to win over 193 of the 244 undecided, a gargantuan task. Within the "no" column, there are 137 Republicans. Under a best case scenario, Boehner could corral 50 "yes" votes, which would require Obama to pick up 168 of the 200 Democrats, 84%. Many of these Democrats rode to power because of their opposition to Iraq, which makes it difficult for them to support military conflict. The only way to generate near unanimity among the undecided Democrats is if they choose to support the President (recognizing the political ramifications of a defeat) despite personal misgivings. The idea that all undecided Democrats can be convinced of this argument is relatively slim, especially as there are few votes to lose. In the best case scenario, the House could reach 223-225 votes, barely enough to get it through. Under the worst case, there are only 150 votes. Given the lopsided nature of the breakdown, the chance of House passage is about one in four.

While a failure in the House would put action against Syria in limbo, I have felt that the market has overstated the impact of a strike there, which would be limited in nature. Rather, investors should focus on the profound ripple through the power structure in Washington, which would greatly impact impending battles over spending and the debt ceiling.

Currently, the government loses spending authority on September 30 while it hits the debt ceiling by the middle of October. Markets have generally felt that Washington will once again strike a last-minute deal and avert total catastrophe. Failure in the Syrian vote could change this. For the Republicans to beat Obama on a President's strength (foreign military action), they will likely be emboldened that they can beat him on domestic spending issues.

Until now, consensus has been that the two sides would compromise to fund the government at sequester levels while passing a $1 trillion stand-alone debt ceiling increase. However, the right wing of Boehner's caucus has been pushing for more, including another $1 trillion in spending cuts, defunding of Obamacare, and a one year delay of the individual mandate. Already, Conservative PACs have begun airing advertisements, urging a debt ceiling fight over Obamacare. With the President rendered hapless on Syria, they will become even more vocal about their hardline resolution, setting us up for a showdown that will rival 2011's debt ceiling fight.

I currently believe the two sides will pass a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open, and then the GOP will wage a massive fight over the debt ceiling. While Obama will be weakened, he will be unwilling to undermine his major achievement, his healthcare law. In all likelihood, both sides will dig in their respective trenches, unwilling to strike a deal, essentially in a game of chicken. If the House blocks Syrian action, it will take America as close to a default as it did in 2011. Based on the market action then, we can expect massive volatility in the final days of the showdown with the Dow falling 500 points in one session in 2011.

As markets panicked over the potential for a U.S. default, we saw a massive risk-off trade, moving from equities into Treasuries. I think there is a significant chance we see something similar this late September into October. The Syrian vote has major implications on the power of Obama and the far-right when it comes to their willingness to fight over the debt ceiling. If the Syrian resolution fails, the debt ceiling fight will be even worse, which will send equities lower by upwards of 10%. Investors must be prepared for this "black swan" event.

Looking back to August 2011, stocks that performed the best were dividend paying, less-cyclical companies like Verizon (NYSE:VZ), Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), Coca-Cola (KO) and McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) while high beta names like Netflix (NFLX) and Boeing (NYSE:BA) were crushed. Investors also flocked into treasuries despite default risk while dumping lower quality bonds as spreads widened. The flight to safety helped treasuries despite U.S. government issues. I think we are likely to see a similar move this time.

Assuming there is a Syrian "no" vote, I would begin to roll back my long exposure in the stock market and reallocate funds into treasuries as I believe yields could drop back towards 2.50%. Within the stock market, I think the less-cyclical names should outperform, making utilities and consumer staples more attractive. For more tactical traders, I would consider buying puts against the S&P 500 and look toward shorting higher-beta and defense stocks like Boeing and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT). I also think lower quality bonds would suffer as spreads widen, making funds like JNK vulnerable. Conversely, gold (NYSEARCA:GLD) should benefit from the fear trade.

I would also like to address the potential that Congress does not vote down the Syrian resolution. First, news has broken that Russia has proposed Syria turn over its chemical stockpile. If Syria were to agree (Syria said it was willing to consider), the U.S. would not have to strike, canceling the congressional vote. The proposal can be found here. I strongly believe this is a delaying tactic rather than a serious effort. In 2005, Libya began to turn over chemical weapons; it has yet to complete the hand-off. Removing and destroying chemical weapons is an exceptionally challenging and dangerous task that would take years, not weeks, making this deal seem unrealistic, especially because a cease-fire would be required around all chemical facilities. The idea that a cease-fire could be maintained for months, essentially allowing Assad to stay in office, is hard to take seriously. I believe this is a delaying tactic, and Congress will have to vote within the next two weeks.

The final possibility is that Democrats back their President and barely ram the Syria resolution through. I think the extreme risk of a full-blown debt stand-off to dissipate. However, Boehner has promised a strong fight over the debt limit that the market has largely ignored. I do believe the fight would still be worse than the market anticipates but not outright disastrous. As such, I would not initiate short positions, but I would trim some longs and move into less cyclical stocks as the risk would still be the debt ceiling fight leading to some drama not no drama.

Remember, in politics everything is connected. Syria is not a stand-alone issue. Its resolution will impact the power structure in Washington. A failed vote in Congress is likely to make the debt ceiling fight even worse, spooking markets, and threatening default on U.S. obligations unless another last minute deal can be struck.

Source: Syria Could Upend Debt Ceiling Fight