Could Technical Default Today Save America from Greek-Style Fiscal Disaster in the Future?

There’s a lot of buzz about a Wall Street Journal interview with Stanley Druckenmiller, in which he argues that a temporary delay in making payments on U.S. government debt (which technically would be a default) would be a small price to pay if it resulted in the long-term spending reforms that are needed to save America from becoming another Greece.

One of the world’s most successful money managers, the lanky, sandy-haired Mr. Druckenmiller is so concerned about the government’s ability to pay for its future obligations that he’s willing to accept a temporary delay in the interest payments he’s owed on his U.S. Treasury bonds—if the result is a Washington deal to restrain runaway entitlement costs. “I think technical default would be horrible,” he says from the 24th floor of his midtown Manhattan office, “but I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the world. It’s not going to be catastrophic. What’s going to be catastrophic is if we don’t solve the real problem,” meaning Washington’s spending addiction. …Mr. Druckenmiller’s view on the debt limit bumps up against virtually the entire Wall Street-Washington financial establishment. A recent note on behalf of giant banks on the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee warned of a “severe and long-lasting impact” if the debt limit is not raised immediately. …This week more than 60 trade associations, representing virtually all of American big business, forecast “a massive spike in borrowing costs.” On Thursday Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke raised the specter of a market crisis similar to the one that followed the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. As usual, the most aggressive predictor of doom in the absence of increased government spending has been Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In a May 2 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Mr. Geithner warned of “a catastrophic economic impact” and said, “Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover.”

Mr. Druckenmiller is not overly impressed by this hyperbole. The article continues with this key passage.

“Here are your two options: piece of paper number one—let’s just call it a 10-year Treasury. So I own this piece of paper. I get an income stream obviously over 10 years … and one of my interest payments is going to be delayed, I don’t know, six days, eight days, 15 days, but I know I’m going to get it. There’s not a doubt in my mind that it’s not going to pay, but it’s going to be delayed. But in exchange for that, let’s suppose I know I’m going to get massive cuts in entitlements and the government is going to get their house in order so my payments seven, eight, nine, 10 years out are much more assured,” he says. Then there’s “piece of paper number two,” he says, under a scenario in which the debt limit is quickly raised to avoid any possible disruption in payments. “I don’t have to wait six, eight, or 10 days for one of my many payments over 10 years. I get it on time. But we’re going to continue to pile up trillions of dollars of debt and I may have a Greek situation on my hands in six or seven years. Now as an owner, which piece of paper do I want to own? To me it’s a no-brainer. It’s piece of paper number one.” …”Russia had a real default and two or three years later they had all-time low interest rates,” says Mr. Druckenmiller. In the future, he says, “People aren’t going to wonder whether 20 years ago we delayed an interest payment for six days. They’re going to wonder whether we got our house in order.”

This is a very compelling argument, but it overlooks one major problem – the complete inability of Republicans to succeed in forcing fiscal reform using this approach.

Here’s a sure-fire prediction, assuming GOPers in the House actually are willing to engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Obama on the debt limit.

  • There will be lots of political drama.
  • We will get to a point where the federal government exhausts its borrowing authority.
  • At that point, either Geithner or Bernanke (or probably both) will make some completely dishonest statements designed to rattle financial markets.
  • The establishment media will echo those statements.
  • The stock market and/or bond market will have a negative reaction.
  • Republican resolve will evaporate like a drop of water in the Mojave Desert.
  • The debt limit will be increased without any meaningful fiscal reform.

For all intents and purposes, this is what happened with the TARP vote in 2008. There were basically two choices of how to deal with the financial crisis. The establishment wanted a blank-check bailout, while sensible people wanted the “FDIC-resolution” approach (similar to what was used during the savings & loan bailouts about 20 years ago, which bails out retail customers but wipes out shareholders, bondholders and senior management). Republicans initially held firm and defeated the first TARP vote, but then they folded when the Washington-Wall Street establishment scared markets.

I hope I’m wrong in my analysis, but I don’t see how Republicans could win a debt limit fight. At least not if they demand something like the Ryan budget. The best possible outcome would be budget process reform such as Senator Corker’s CAP Act, which would impose caps on future spending, enforced by automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Because it postpones the fiscal discipline until after the vote, that legislation has a chance of attracting enough bipartisan support to overcome opposition from Obama and other statists.