What Happens If Debt Ceiling Is or Isn’t Raised – How It Plays Out (updated)

Yesterday I took a stab at describing what the consequences of a government default might be and I added to it here.  There’s basically three lessons to take away from those questions. One, nobody knows now exactly what happens, especially in financial markets.  Two, it all depends on the specifics of a deal or no deal to raise the debt ceiling.  Truth is that many of the proposed “deals” to raise the debt ceiling will have negative consequences for the economy as bad as if we don’t raise the ceiling.  And three, regardless of the specifics in financial markets, it will have very negative consequences on GDP and the real economy where most of us live and work.  What I want to address now is less of what the disaster will be as the how the economic side of crisis will likely unfold.

Reporters and politicians are using the metaphor or image of the economy moving toward a cliff to describe how things will happen economically.  They, and the President is one of them, are conjuring up an image whereby the economy is moving along just fine and dandy and then, if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we will just fall off a cliff into a giant abyss on Aug. 2.  They’re acting as if there’s this hard-and-fast, unalterable deadline when the machine just stops.  If Congress passes a debt ceiling increase before Aug. 2 then they act like everything will be OK.  The image that comes to my mind is one of Coyote from the old Loony Tunes cartoons racing along a plateau towards a giant cliff.  At his current rate he’ll reach the edge on Aug 2.  If Congress votes an increase before Aug 2, then a bridge will appear out of nowhere and he goes on safely.  If they don’t Coyote just falls into the abyss.  That’s wrong and it’s misleading.

The better metaphor is not of a someone racing toward a cliff. The better metaphor is to imagine thousands of people all standing around at the edge of a cliff looking over the edge. The key is the cliff isn’t made of rock.  It’s made of ordinary sand and dirt and it’s weak.  And the cliff has a bit of an overhand to it.  Nobody can see clearly over the edge.  What will happen is that gradually people will get nervous.  Some folks decide to move back from the  edge – banks, investors, and funds decide to move their money out of US T-bills. But the movement starts to weaken and shake the ground.  Some dirt can be seen sliding over the edge.  More people begin to pull back.  The earth shakes and slips more.  It turns into a mob rush to start getting away from the cliff’s edge. But it’s too late.  The ground starts sliding slowly but it gains momentum.  It turns into a landslide.  The whole cliff slides down in a massive landslide taking huge numbers of people with it.  That’s how I see it.

We’re already seeing the beginning of the movements this week.  We have reports from the New York Times that Debt Ceiling Impasse Rattles Short-Term Credit Markets.  The stock markets aren’t in full panic mode. There’s been no 3-5% decline days of panic selling like we saw in 2008. Yet.  But we’ve seen the market turn decidedly down. It’s been losing about .8% per day all week for a 4% loss on the week.  Interest rates on short-term government T-bills are up a little, indicating that a growing desire to sell by many and get out.  (interestingly, the rate on long-term bonds are actually down a bit – funds appear to still be bullish on the U.S. long-term).  Right now there’s no panic. But as JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said today “We’re praying. And we’re planning”.

How bad could it get?  Again I’ll turn to Jamie Dimon:

Now, here’s what really would happen.

Every single company with treasuries, every insurance fund, every — every requirement that — it will start snowballing. Automatic, you don’t pay your debt, there will be default by ratings agencies. All short-term financing will disappear. I would have hundreds of work streams working around the world protecting our company for that kind of event.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/jamie-dimon-debt-ceiling-isnt-raised-and-the-us-defaults-praying-2011-4#ixzz1TX9b0ypB

Even the Aug 2 deadline itself isn’t as hard and fast as the President and Secretary of the Treasury have made it out to be.  The original projected date when new government borrowing would have to stop was in mid-May.  But when that date came, the Treasury began to implement some extraordinary measures.  Instead of making cash payments to some government employee pension funds he gave them IOU’s – promises to make it good soon.  Cash payments to many government vendors have been slowed down.  They implemented tricks that are the big government equivalent of searching the sofa for loose change, or borrowing from the kids’ piggy banks, or using the full 15-day grace period to make the mortgage payment.  At the same time, cash tax collections have a just a tick better than projected.  Eventually these tricks run out.  Right now the latest estimates I’ve seen say the real cash-drop dead date is closer to Aug 10. But it’s likely the Treasury will stop something on Aug 2.  We just don’t know what.

My point here is that it’s not like Tuesday August 2 is calamity day and everything happens then.  It might. But things might fall apart before then.  Or they might fall apart a few days later.  Or things might continue to gradually get worse but without us realizing how bad it’s getting because we’re waiting for the dramatic fall off a cliff.  By the time we realize in mid-August that it’s a real disaster, we’ll be buried in the landslide.

This is crazy.  It’s no way to run a government or an economy, but it’s clear that the Republicans and Tea Party types would rather crash the economy than compromise. Unfortunately Obama is willing to help them do it.

UPDATE:  Some indicators of possible trouble could show up next Monday when the Treasury holds a “routine” auction of T-bills for refunding purposes.  Refunding doesn’t add net debt, it only rolls-over existing maturing debt.  Treasury will also announce it’s plans for future auctions at that time.  According to the Wall Street Journal Marketwatch:

A refunding is a replacement of government debt, often debt that is about to mature, with new debt. Officials typically meet with about half of the primary dealers each quarter to discuss the refunding.

On Monday, Treasury plans to release estimates of future borrowing. Two days later, it will release its refunding decisions, including how much in Treasury securities will be sold.

More on What Happens If Debt Ceiling Isn’t Raised

I’ve mentioned in many previous posts that government debt is really not like private debt.  Instead government bonds are more like another type of currency or money.  The key difference between government bonds and paper money is that bonds pay interest and money doesn’t.  That’s about it.  But it’s a key point because government bonds, specifically T-Bills, are actually used like money.  Large corporations and pension funds don’t keep cash (paper money) lying around.  Instead these days they take whatever money they have each day and put it into liquid T-bills to earn just a little interest.

Spencer at Angry Bear offers more analysis on possible outcomes if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling in a timely manner (emphasis is mine):

If the debt ceiling is not raised at some point the US government will be unable to meet all of its obligations.

I assume that they will make their interest payments and bond redemptions on schedule and the shortfall will be in paying social secutiry, medicare, military and other obligations. This will naturally impact aggregrate demand and generate a significant negative impact on the economy. Given the severe weakness in the economy this shock most likely would tilt the economy into a recession.

This is rather straight forward analysis, but the more severe situation would be the consequences of the government failing to redeem T bonds and/or T bills or failing to make an interest payment of these debt obligations.

Large business and financial institutions do not leave large sums sitting around not earning interest. For the most part firms invest idle balances in T bills. This reached the point long ago where banks introduced sweep accounts where they will go through a firms deposits late in the day and sweep their balance out and invest them in T bills overnight. This is where the risk free instrument comes to play a major role in the financial system and the economy. In many ways the risk free investment of T bills are like the oil in an engine. It provides the buffer or lubrication in the financial system that allow the various moving parts of the economy to move freely and not rub against each other. If the risk free instrument of the T bill is removed from the system there is nothing around of sufficient size to provide the lubrication that the system requires. Thus, if firms no longer have T bills or risk free instruments to invest in there is a danger that the financial system will seize up like an engine without oil. It becomes a question of confidence and we could quickly have a repeat of something like what happened in 2008 after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and lenders pulled in their horns and refused to lend to otherwise good credits. This is why those claiming that the US defaulting on its debts would not have severe and wide-ranging consequences are completely wrong. It is why some of the largest financial institutions are already starting to take measures to protect themselves against this possibility.

Private Debt vs. Government Debt

The Great Recession of 2007-2009, which has been morphing into a Depression, has been different from most recessions of the post-World War II era.  It has been what economists call a “balance-sheet” recession.  Normally (at least since World War II), recessions were the result of the central bank (The Fed in the U.S.) raising interest rates because it thought the economy was growing too fast or that inflation was too high.  This time, though, the triggers were a financial crisis brought on by a banking and financial sector that gorged itself on risky debt: subprime mortgages, derivatives, and bizarre financial products bought with borrowed money.  The financial crisis and resulting recession then brought an end to the debt game for ordinary households.  For thirty years or so, ordinary households, middle class folks, have struggled with declining real incomes and real wages.  To maintain a middle class lifestyle, ordinary folks took on huge debts: mortgages, home equity loans, credit cards, and student loans.  As deflation and unemployment hit in 2008 and the housing price bubble burst in 2007, the debt became unbearable, driving many to bankruptcy, foreclosure, and to drastically reduced spending*.

With this backdrop, it’s no surprise that debt has become an emotionally-charged word laden with negative feelings for most people.  People who are struggling with too much debt naturally are averse to the idea of debt. People who aren’t struggling with too much debt are resentful of those who do owe because they blame the debt-burdened for the recession (strange that the lender never gets blamed).

Unfortunately, politicians and news media with a political agenda have tapped into these negative emotions about debt to push their agenda to end the modern social support services that government provides.  They have done it by drawing false parallels between households and the government. Politicians from both parties have spent most of this year (and last) agitated about government deficits and debt. Even President Obama has done this in his July 3 radio address.  But the government is not like a household. There are many reasons why financially, governments are not like households. In this context, I am speaking solely of sovereign, currency-issuing governments with floating exchange rates.  This means Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and the other Eurozone countries are excluded.  I’m talking about the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Japan, Australia, Brazil, and others. There are many reasons why governments are not like households ranging from tax powers vs. wages to unlimited life. But I want to emphasize one in particular: governments are the sole monopoly issuer of their money.  Households cannot issue money, only governments can.

So what does this have to do with debt?  It means government debt is not like private debt. Government debt need never be paid off.  It can be rolled-over.  As bonds become due, they are replaced with new bonds. Households can’t always do that. Governments cannot be “foreclosed” or “repossessed”.  Households and their goods can be.  Households and private firms can go bankrupt and default.  Sovereign governments only default when they choose to do so.  Historically the only known instance of a sovereign, floating currency issuing government defaulting was Japan in WWII, but that was deliberate.  U.S. and British banks held much of the debt and they were at war.  Some Republicans (example: Ron Paul) have recently been suggesting the U.S. default, but it’s still possible that grown-ups will prevail.  Politicians and ideologically-driven economists and news media have whipped up a frenzy about government debt as being evil.  But it isn’t.  In fact, government debt is necessary to the functioning of a modern financial system. It provides a safe, interest-bearing financial asset.

So if government debt isn’t evil or bad for us, how should we think about it?  Government bonds are best thought of as currency that pays interest and can’t be used at the 7-11 store. So rather than thinking of government debt as just another form of debt like private mortgages, corporate debt, student loans, and credit cards, it’s better understood as just another form of money. It’s a holding pen for idle money.

Much is made in the media about the fact that many “foreigners” hold US government bonds.  Again, the media is trying to create a scary feeling by drawing a false analogy to private debt.  If you’re a homeowner, the bank who holds your mortgage has some power over you, particularly if you don’t make regular payments.  The media want us to feel like some how the “foreigners” have power over our government because they hold the debt.  But that’s false. The foreigners can’t repossess or foreclose on the U.S. government, regardless of whether the government makes payments or not.  Again, government debt is not like private debt.  Private debt is the result of lenders making loans at interest with the goal of making a profit. But government bonds that are owned by “foreigners” are primarily owned by foreign central banks and banks.  They are used as safe reserves, not for the primary purpose of making a profit.  US government bonds are the modern banking world’s substitute for gold.  Foreigners want US bonds because they want a safe, secure asset that earns more interest than stacks of idle paper currency.  It’s not because primarily for profit-making.  If they wanted profits, they would use the money to make loans. Instead they want security.  That’s why they accept interest rates in the 1-3% range.

When somebody tells you that government debt is bad and harmful and we must do everything we can to reduce debt, even if it means high unemployment, remember they have another agenda that they aren’t talking about. It’s scare tactics.

* remember that drastically reduced spending might appear to help make the payments on debts, it also means that somebody else loses their job because their employer isn’t making a sale.  That newly unemployed person now has debt problems too.