Gentlemen may cry default, default, but there will be no default. (With apologies to Patrick Henry.)
Once again the media are full of talk about dysfunction and default, as the partial government shutdown threatens to linger until the federal government hits the limit of its borrowing capacity, possibly on Oct. 17. The parties in Congress are still far apart on passing a budget bill to keep the government running, and Republicans are also promising not to raise the debt ceiling without some spending reforms.
If in fact Congress doesn’t raise the ceiling by mid‐October — or by November 1 or so, when the real crunch might come — then the federal government would be forbidden to borrow any more money beyond the legal limit of $16.699 trillion. But it would still have enough money to pay its creditors as bonds come due. The government will take in something like $225 billion in October, but it wants to spend about $108 billion more than that. You see the problem. If it can’t borrow that $108 billion — to cover its bills for one month — then it will have to delay some checks.
Now the U.S. Treasury isn’t full of stupid people. Back in 2011, when the debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion was about to be reached, the Washington Post reported:
The Treasury has already decided to save enough cash to cover $29 billion in interest to bondholders, a bill that comes due Aug. 15, according to people familiar with the matter.
You can bet they’re making similar plans today.
Back in that summer of discontent I talked to a journalist who was very concerned about the “dysfunction” in Washington. So am I. But I told her then what’s still true today: that the real problem is not the dysfunctional process that’s getting all the headlines, but the dysfunctional substance of governance. Congress and the president will work out the debt ceiling issue, if not by October 17 then a few days later. The real dysfunction is a federal budget that doubled in 10 years, unprecedented deficits as far as the eye can see, and a national debt bursting through its statutory limit of $16.699 trillion and heading toward 100 percent of GDP.
The video below shows interim-Argentine president Adolfo Rodríguez Saá (he was president for a week) announcing before Congress in late December 2001 that Argentina would default on its debt—the largest sovereign default in history. Rodríguez was interrupted by a standing ovation and chants of “Argentina! Argentina!”
Fast forward 10 years to May 2012 when Argentina’s congress voted overwhelmingly to seize (without compensation so far) Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), the country’s largest oil company whose controlling stake belonged to Spain’s Repsol. When the 207-32 vote was announced, the chamber erupted in a wild celebration, with deputies hugging each other and singing:
This is just a taste of Argentina’s flimsy rule of law.
After much wrangling and consternation, the Greek government has agreed to the latest round of “drastic austerity measures,” the most significant of which is the promise to cut 15,000 government jobs. In return, the Greeks will receive 130 billion euros ($170 billion) of European bailout money to keep the Greek state afloat and, crucially, in the eurozone. That, anyway, is the plan.
The leaders of the political parties that “support” the Greek technocratic (i.e. unelected) government still have to approve the cuts, which they might not do because the unions threaten a general strike. But, there are additional problems as well. First, many of those 15,000 government workers will likely come from the ranks of those who are close to retirement. While the number of government workers will thus shrink, the government’s unsustainable social security burden will worsen. Second, the government workforce (i.e. public servants and employees of the Greek parastatals) account for over 22 percent of the Greek labor force of 4.4 million. That means that the number of people working for the government will decline from 968,000 to 953,000 — a reduction of 1.6 percent. And that is what amounts to a “drastic austerity measure” in Greece!
There will be several pivotal fiscal policy battles this year and the fight over the debt limit may be the most crucial.
This is a "must-pass" piece of legislation, so it will be a rare opportunity for fiscal conservatives in the House to impose some much-needed spending restraint.
But it's also a high-stakes game. If Obama (or Reid) refuses to accept the fiscal reforms approved by the House and there is a stalemate, the
federal government ultimately would lose its ability to borrow from private credit markets. And while that notion has some appeal for many of us, it almost certainly would require more fiscal discipline than the political system is willing to accept (i.e., actual deep cuts rather than just restraining the growth of spending).
In a bit of reckless demagoguery, the Treasury secretary even says it would mean default -- which could cause instability in financial markets.
To preclude that possibility, Senator Toomey of Pennsylvania has a proposal to protect the "full faith and credit" of the United States by requiring the federal government to make interest payments a top priority. Writing for Bloomberg, I opine about the Senator's proposal.
...the federal government is expected to collect more than $2.1 trillion of tax revenue this year, while interest payments on the publicly held debt will only be about $200 billion. So even without an increase in the debt limit, the Treasury Department will have more than enough revenue to cover its interest obligations and avoid a default. That being said, financial markets are sometimes spooked by uncertainty. And since Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner began making some irresponsible statements about the risks of default, there is growing interest in legislation by Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican of Pennsylvania, to alleviate the market’s fears. Quite simply, Toomey’s bill would require the federal government to fulfill obligations to bondholders before making any other disbursements. ...If the Toomey legislation is adopted, fiscal reformers will have a powerful weapon at their disposal. Secure in the knowledge that default no longer is a possibility, they can be much tougher in their negotiations with the politicians who favor the status quo. This explains the attacks against the Toomey plan. Some even argue that the law requires the government to pay Chinese bondholders (gasp!) before it pays Social Security recipients. This is demagoguery. The federal government will collect more than enough revenue to finance the majority of budgeted outlays. Social Security checks will be disbursed, unless the Treasury secretary decides otherwise. In any event, the attack is rather hollow since it’s almost always made by people who say that default would be a cataclysmic event. What they really mean, it seems, is that deficits, debt and default are bad, and only higher taxes are the solution. That’s what this debate is all about. We have a fiscal crisis caused by too much spending, not too little taxes. Restraining the size and scope of government is contrary to the interests of the iron quadrangle of politicians, interest groups, lobbyists and bureaucrats who benefit from ever- expanding government.
The economist Herb Stein famously said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” That’s a good riposte when people wring their hands over something unsustainable. Of course, that fact doesn’t tell you how unsustainable situations will stop, and some ways are less pleasant than others.
I thought of “Stein’s Law” when I read former California Assembly speaker Willie Brown’s response to a question about whether California’s lavish public‐employee pensions would bankrupt the state:
No, it’s not going to bankrupt the state. My guess is that the State of California, like most places involved with pensions, is going to cease to pay them.
From Robert J. Samuelson’s column in today’s Washington Post:
When historians recount the momentous events of recent weeks, they will note a curious coincidence. On March 15, Moody’s Investors Service — the bond rating agency — published a paper warning that the exploding U.S. government debt could cause a downgrade of Treasury bonds. Just six days later, the House of Representatives passed President Obama’s health‐care legislation costing $900 billion or so over a decade and worsening an already‐bleak budget outlook.
Should the United States someday suffer a budget crisis, it will be hard not to conclude that Obama and his allies sowed the seeds, because they ignored conspicuous warnings. A further irony will not escape historians. For two years, Obama and members of Congress have angrily blamed the shortsightedness and selfishness of bankers and rating agencies for causing the recent financial crisis. The president and his supporters, historians will note, were equally shortsighted and self‐centered — though their quest was for political glory, not financial gain.
I hope Samuelson is wrong, but it’s probably a good idea to behave as if he’s right, and repeal ObamaCare’s new entitlement spending.
Moody’s has announced that it will change its methods for rating debt issued by state and local governments. Politicians have argued that its current ratings ignore the historically low default rate of municipal bonds, resulting in higher interest rates being paid on muni debt, or so argue the politicians.
First this argument ignores that the market determines the cost of borrowing, not the rating. And while ratings are considered by market participants, one can easily find similarly rated bonds that trade at different yields.
Second, while ratings should give some weight to historical performance, far more weight should be given to expected future performance. Regardless of how say California‐issued debt has performed in the past, does anyone doubt that California, or many other municipalities, are in fiscal straights right now?
Last and not least, politicians have no business telling rating agencies how to handle different types of investments. We’ve been down this road before with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. During drafting of GSE reform bills in the past, politicians put constant pressure on the rating agencies to maintain Fannie and Freddie’s AAA status.
The gaming over muni ratings illustrates all the more why we need to end the rating agencies govt created monopoly. As long as govt has imposed a system protecting the rating agencies from market pressures, those agencies will bend to the will of politicians in order to protect that status. As Fannie and Freddie have demonstrated, it ends up being the taxpayers and the investors who ultimately pay for this political meddling.