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Ms. Reinhart is co-author of a much-discussed study showing that countries whose gross debt exceeds 100 percent of their yearly economic output experience more sluggish economic growth. She said the U.S. is approaching that level and has already exceeded that level if the debts of state and local governments and government-sponsored enterprises by Fannie Mae are added.

“Markets haven’t reacted wildly to the S&P news,” because most investors were already well aware of the dangers associated with the growing U.S. debt load and the implications for the global financial system, she said.

Ms. Reinhart said Washington’s usual excuses for not tackling the debt problem are getting “old.” Politicians argue that the economy is still fragile and another election is just around the corner, so nothing serious can get done while everyone is campaigning. Each party blames the other for years of inaction.

“Can anyone tell me if there is a good time to make difficult decisions about spending and taxes?” asked Ms. Reinhart. “I really don’t think there is a good time politically.”

John Spinello, chief strategist at Jefferies & Co., said S&P’s announcement was a “shock” that shook the U.S. bond market for about an hour April 18. But then traders went back to worrying about the more immediate debt problems in European countries such as Portugal and Ireland.

“No one in the financial universe” had expected S&P to emerge as a “deficit cop for the government” last week, he said. But in the end, the credit agency’s message to the government to “get your house in order” was no surprise to markets that have had to absorb billions of dollars of new Treasury-debt issues each week.

In the gold market, “fear about the nation’s debt and deficit” has helped cause a more than tripling of prices from $437 an ounce in 2005, and gold is likely to go still higher in coming months, said Scott Anderson, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities.

“The big issue is the fate of the U.S. dollar in the face of soaring government debt and deficits,” he said. Reversing the decline won’t be easy, he added.

“Finding a solution to the nation’s budget woes will be a tremendous challenge and will entail significant sacrifices that many Americans may be loath to endure.”