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The Real Dysfunction: A $17 Trillion National Debt

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.

Bondholders Should Think Twice about Argentina’s Debt Swap Offer

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.

How the Debt Crisis Will Stop

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.

Housing Bailouts: Lessons Not Learned

The housing boom and bust that occurred earlier in this decade resulted from efforts by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the government sponsored enterprises with implicit backing from taxpayers — to extend mortgage credit to high-risk borrowers. This lending did not impose appropriate conditions on borrower income and assets, and it included loans with minimal down payments. We know how that turned out.

Obama Financial Reform Plan Misses the Mark

The Obama Administration is presenting a misguided, ill-informed remake of our financial regulatory system that will likely increase the frequency and severity of future financial crisis. While our financial system, particularly our mortgage finance system, is broken, the Obama plan ignores the real flaws in our current structure, instead focusing on convenient targets.

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