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Uncle Sam nears his credit limit, but will still keep on buying

Like a shopper who has charged up to the limit on his credit card and then spots a new video recorder he wants to buy, the US Treasury is waiting for its credit limit to be raised.

The federal government is about to hit the $1.389 trillion limit Congress has set on the public debt. But to keep paying bills Uncle Sam will have to go $63 billion deeper in debt between now and the end of the year. That's because the government is spending more than it is receiving in taxes.

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At the moment, however, the Senate is playing the cautious banker and refusing to go along with the House of Representatives, which boosted the debt ceiling to the $1.615 trillion sought by the Reagan administration. Conservative senators Monday helped defeat a bill authorizing a $1.45 trillion debt ceiling. They hope to force the administration to cut the deficit through either additional spending cuts or tax increases.

But the White House has refused to give ground, and Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee says the debt bill will not come up for action again this week and may not be acted on next week either.

''Then maybe things will happen that force (the Senate) to act,'' a Baker aide says.

As a result of the stalemate, the Treasury this week delayed the sale of $16 billion in bonds and notes and reduced the size of a Treasury-bill issue. Analysts say that for consumers the potential pocketbook consequences of the delay include:

* No interruption, for the present, in social security or pension payments.

* An estimated $250 million hike in federal debt costs.

* The prospect of slightly higher interest rates, which could slow the economic recovery a bit and slow the creation of new jobs as a result.

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* Slightly higher interest costs for corporations, which eventually could be passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices.

The current debt-ceiling battle is not having the same sharp, immediate impact as previous debt crises. In the past, the debt limit would expire periodically and only $400 billion of so-called permanent debt would still be authorized. As a result, the Treasury's ability to roll over (or reissue) existing debt as it came due was radically curtailed.

However, when Congress raised the debt ceiling in May 1983, the law was changed so that the entire debt is now permanent. Thus the current delay on Capitol Hill limits only the government's ability to issue new debt or securities.

''Before, we would have had to go out of business,'' a Treasury spokesman says.

The government's ability to keep issuing checks is also aided by $25 billion in cash on hand. The Treasury's hoard is larger than usual because federal spending in the waning months of fiscal 1983 (which ended Sept. 30) was somewhat smaller than expected. The cash will last at least a week and perhaps two weeks, Treasury officials say.

''The fairly healthy cash balance will allow the government to operate. Social security checks will go out as scheduled,'' says Bernard M. Markstein III , senior financial economist at Chase Econometrics, a forecasting firm.

But the debt-ceiling delay is not without costs.

''It causes extremely unsettling conditions in the financial markets,'' says David Jones, senior vice-president and economist at Aubrey G. Lanston & Co., a large government securities trading firm.

And the uncertainty ''probably means more expensive financing costs'' for the government, says Robert Schwartz, a financial economist with Merrill Lynch.

In fact, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan estimates that the government will pay an additional $250 million in interest over the life of the 3-year notes, 10-year notes, and 29-year bonds that were postponed this week.

Mr. Jones estimates that when the Treasury issues are sold the governemnt will end up paying between one-eigth and one-quarter of a percent more in annual interest than would otherwise be the case.

The added interest costs will be incurred for a number of reasons.

First, security markets abhor uncertainty. ''Anything done to increase uncertainty in financial markets will raise interest rates,'' notes Roger Brinner, group vice-president of Data Resources Inc, a forecasting firm.

Market particpants also note that Treasury scheduling delays make it more difficult to use technical measures to gauge market reaction to the issues and to protect themselves aganst unexpected price moves. Thus buyers will require a higher interest rate to purchase the securities.

Then too, ''you are going to have a bunching of issues when the debt limit is passed,'' Mr. Schwartz notes. With a bigger supply, securities dealers will tend to offer a lower price, thus driving the yield or interest rate higher, he notes.

Corporate borrowers are likely to be affected by turmoil in the government securities markets, analysts say, since buyers always require corporations to pay a somewhat higher rate of interest than the government.

So if government interest rates move up fractionally, corporate borrowers ''will be paying higher rates than they otherwise would,'' Schwartz concludes.

The delay in passing a new debt ceiling is not expected to have a persistent effect on interest rates, although borrowers and the economy as a whole will face higher costs in the short run.

''The longer-term impact I would say is minimal,'' Schwartz says.

While the impact of scheduling delays will abate, the need to finance continuing large federal deficits does worry economists. Mr. Markstein predicts that by early 1985 federal borrowing will begin to crowd out private borrowers. As a result, he predicts the interest rate on three-month Treasury bills will rise to 10 percent from their current 8.41 percent and 20-year Treasury bonds will climb to 13 percent from their present 11.76 percent level.

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