The Very Real Threat of a U.S. Debt Default
This morning, CEA chairman Austan Goolsbee warned Republicans against playing games with the nation’s credit rating by refusing to raise the debt limit and creating a technical default. I have been warning people about this problem for more than a year because I know there is a widespread belief among the nuttier right-wingers that a debt default is just what the country needs to force massive spending cuts into effect. Many stupidly believe that the budget would be balanced overnight because the government couldn’t spend any more than the available cash flow from taxes would permit.
Since I first started writing about this danger, some of these nutty right-wingers have been elected to Congress under the Tea Party banner. Since many have never served in elected office before and know virtually nothing about economics or finance, I don’t think they realize that they are playing with fire when they even hint at the possibility of a debt default. They are like children playing with matches.
What I haven’t figured out how to properly convey is that a default triggered by a failure to raise the debt ceiling is of a completely different nature than the sort of default that Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart wrote about in their book. All of those cases were market-driven, where investors refused to buy or refinance a nation’s debt because of fiscal profligacy, irresponsible monetary policies etc. A U.S. default, by contrast, would be 100% self-inflicted based on loss of the Treasury’s legal authority to issue bonds, not because of a lack of market demand for those bonds. The historically low level of real and nominal interest rates on Treasury securities is proof that there is still strong demand for Treasury securities.
I have spent considerable time trying to figure out what exactly would happen in the event that, at some point, the Treasury literally had no cash to pay interest on the debt, redeem maturing securities, pay Social Security benefits and so on. Some people believe that the Treasury has an almost unlimited ability to fudge the problem indefinitely. But I know that there are analysts at the GAO who are very concerned about hitting a hard limit on the Treasury’s legal authority not long after the debt ceiling is breached. The law is very unclear and has never been tested in court.
As far as I am aware, no other country on Earth has the idiotic policy that the United States has of having a legal limit on the amount of bonds the central government can issue. They correctly recognize that the deficit and the debt are simply residuals resulting from the government’s tax and spending policies. It makes no sense to treat the debt as if it is an independent variable.
Some argue that the debt limit has the virtue of focusing the attention of policymakers on the debt. But Congress already has a budget process designed to do that on an annual basis. Having a separate debate on the debt limit is at best superfluous. But it’s also dangerous because it allows members of Congress to try and compensate for being fiscally irresponsible – voting for new entitlement programs such as Medicare Part D or massive tax cuts that are not offset with spending cuts – by casting a vote against the debt limit.
I reprint below a column I wrote for the Fiscal Times last year that goes into more detail on the debt limit and the very real prospects for default. The important thing for readers to realize is that the prospect of default is not theoretical; it is real. The Tea Party people really are crazy enough to do it and may have the votes to make it happen. It simply cannot be assumed that there are enough adults left in the Republican Party to take responsibility and do what is necessary on this issue. It’s best to assume the worst, in my opinion.
Debt Default: It Can Happen Here
The recent financial crisis in Greece has led to a lot of discussion about whether the United States might one day have a public debt so large that default becomes a real possibility. While the sort of problem Greece is experiencing is impossible here, we have another problem that, to my knowledge, no other nation on Earth has: a legal limit on government debt that Congress must raise periodically. This peculiarity of our fiscal system could indeed lead to a default on the debt, with repercussions that advocates of default — yes, they exist — have absolutely no clue about.
The main reason the U.S. cannot suffer the sort of debt problems of Greece and other eurozone countries is that all our debt is denominated in dollars, of which we essentially have an unlimited supply. Because its monetary policy is controlled by the European Central Bank, Greece can’t just print euros the way we can print dollars. And the Federal Reserve will always ensure the success of a Treasury bond auction. De facto monetization of the debt could be inflationary, but default resulting from a lack of demand for Treasury bonds is not really possible.
This does not mean that default is impossible, however, because there is always a danger that Congress will not raise the debt ceiling in a timely manner, meaning that the Treasury may not have sufficient cash to make interest payments or redeem maturing securities. If that happens, there would be a technical default.
As of right now, outstanding debt subject to limit is a little over $13 trillion and the debt limit is $14.3 trillion. At the rate the Treasury is borrowing, it can continue for about 10 months before the debt limit must be raised again. It has been difficult enough, politically, to raise the debt limit when Democrats control both houses of Congress. But next year there is almost certain to be a very substantial increase in the number of Republicans in both the House and Senate, with Republican control of the House being well within the realm of possibility.
The party opposite the White House always demagogues increases in the debt limit to score cheap political points. Economist Donald Marron calls the vote on raising the debt limit a tax on the party in power. Barack Obama knows this very well. As a U.S. senator he voted against a debt limit increase in 2006, saying that the necessity of raising the limit was “a sign of leadership failure.”
To be sure, the debt limit has always been raised in time to prevent a default, although Treasury sometimes had to push the limits of the law to move money around to pay the government’s bills. However, I believe the game has changed because Republicans have become extremely bold in using the filibuster to make it extraordinarily difficult to pass any major legislation without at least 60 votes in the Senate.
Furthermore, a growing number of conservatives have suggested that default on the debt wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It is often said that default would lead to an instantaneous balanced budget because no one would lend to the U.S. government ever again. Therefore, spending would have to be cut to the level of current revenues.
Writing in Forbes last month, the Cato Institute’s John Tamny was enthusiastic about the prospects of default. Said Tamny, “It’s time we learn to love the idea of a U.S. default . . . For Americans to worry about a debt default is like the parent of a heroin addict fearing that his dealers will cease feeding the addiction.”
While acknowledging there might be some pain from default, he dismissed it as trivial compared to the enormous blessing of a massive reduction in federal spending.
Tamny is not an isolated crackpot; reputable conservative economists have been writing sympathetically about the idea of default for decades. These include Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan, whose 1987 essay, “The Ethics of Debt Default,” defended the morality of default on the grounds that deficits weren’t financing public capital but current consumption, with the bills being passed on to future generations.
Other prominent conservatives who have been favorable, even enthusiastic, about debt default include Christopher Whalen. In 1995, then House speaker Newt Gingrich publicly warned the Public Securities Association that he was prepared to default on the debt unless Bill Clinton acceded to Republican demands for budget cuts. “I don’t care what the price is,” Gingrich said., , , and
Consequently, it is becoming increasingly common for the idea of default to be discussed as a realistic possibility even by responsible analysts. Last year, The Economist’s Greg Ip wrote an article in the Washington Post saying that financial markets were placing the risk of default at 6 percent over the next 10 years. “Default is unlikely,” he said. “But it is no longer unthinkable.”
My purpose today is not to make the case against default or explain all of its ramifications — that would require a separate column. Rather, my purpose is simply to alert readers to the consequences of increased Republican membership in the next Congress, a Democratic administration, the need for 60 votes in the Senate on major bills, and a debt limit that will run out early next year. I believe we could be in for the biggest debt crisis we have seen since Alexander Hamilton was Treasury secretary.
One way of forestalling such a crisis would be for Congress to require that bills breaching the budget resolution’s revenue floor or spending caps — those designated as “emergency” legislation — would have to include an increase in the debt limit equal to the increase in the deficit. This won’t eliminate the need to raise the debt limit eventually, but it would at least put members of Congress on record as accepting the consequences of deficit spending, rather than trying to have it both ways — voting for deficits but then scoring political points by voting against an increase in the debt limit.