defaulting on the government debt: what it would mean

debt ceiling crunch time

According to the Washington Postthe letter Treasury Secretary Jack Lew recently sent to Congress said that in mid-October, the Treasury will reach the legislatively imposed upper bound on borrowing to pay for goods and services that Congress has ordered up.   That’s a problem, because Washington’s spending so far this year has exceeded its income by about $100 billion a month–and that’s even after the sequester kicked in.

D-Day is October 17th.

The Treasury figures it will have $30 billion on hand on that date.  Bills coming due can reach as high as $60 billion in a single day.  The current layoff of large numbers of Federal employees through the Tea Party-created shutdown might “save” $5 billion a month, but that doesn’t move the needle much.

what if Congress doesn’t act?

If Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, two related problems arise:

–someone has to decide who gets paid and who doesn’t.  The biggest chunks of spending are Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, the military and interest on the Federal debt (which alone averages about $33 billion a month), and

–inevitably there’ll come a day when the till is empty and the Treasury either misses an interest payment or, more likely though a rollover timing issue, a principal repayment on Treasury securities.  That’s a default.

what default would mean

Secretary Lew is saying that a government debt default could/would create an economic crisis bigger than the bank failures of 2008.

Yes, I think the inevitable default that would come from not raising the debt ceiling would be a major shoot-yourself-in-the-foot moment for the country.  Worse than 2008, though?

…unless we’re talking about possible very long-term consequences, I think this is possible but not probable.  On second thought, minimizing the damage would require Congress to realize what an idiotic thing it had done and “cure” (as the technical term goes) the default immediately.  The more reluctance by Washington to do so, the closer to the Lew scenario we get.

Default would have several important negative consequences:

slower economic growth

–by not paying on time, the US would establish itself as an unreliable borrower.  Lenders, both foreign and domestic, would therefore demand a higher interest rate for the use of their money.  How much higher?  That depends a lot on Congress, but basically no one knows.

–given Washington’s dysfunction, the only effective tool of macroeconomic policy the country has is the Fed.  To at least some degree, the Fed would lose its ability to influence rates if investors begin to regard Treasuries as risky securities.  That’s not good.

weaker currency

–the move among emerging countries to replace the dollar as world currency with, say, the renminbi, would kick into higher gear.  This would risk the US losing the perks of being the world’s banker–lower interest rates, ease of borrowing.

–in extreme circumstances, global buyers and sellers might lose enough confidence in the dollar that they’d refuse to accept it in trade.  This might freeze global commerce in the same way that was so devastating to the world in late 2008-early 2009, when firms wouldn’t take bank letters of credit.  That could be really ugly.


There is, of course, the issue that adding $1 trillion+ a year to the Federal debt isn’t a sustainable plan for financing the Federal government.  And business-as-usual Washington has no tolerance for addressing the holy trinity of budget-busters–the military, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.  Still, puling the house down around everyone’s ears isn’t a great solution, either.



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