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Posts Tagged ‘Debt Ceiling’

One of the few theoretical constraints on Washington is that politicians periodically have to raise a “debt ceiling” or “debt limit” in order to finance additional spending with additional red ink.

I have mixed feelings about this requirement. I like that there is some limit on spending, even if it’s only a potential restraint.

On the other hand, fights over the debt limit are mostly just opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to engage in posturing and finger pointing rather than adopt positive reforms.

Moreover, the scholarly research clearly suggests that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule, so what’s the point of having a debt limit if potential spending restraint never turns into actual spending restraint?

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post looks at the current fight and opines that we shouldn’t even have a debt limit.

The government is about to run out of money because of an arbitrary cap on how much it can borrow… Lawmakers and the White House are haggling over  the conditions under which they will, once again, temporarily raise that cap, known as the debt ceiling. But the better solution would be to abolish it entirely… Most recently, the government hit the official debt limit on March 1 . Since then, the Treasury Department has engaged in “extraordinary measures” to shift money around and continue paying its bills… Initially Treasury predicted that its extraordinary measures would get us to October, but more recent forecasts suggest we will hit the wall as soon as early September. Which means the drop-dead deadline before we become global deadbeats could happen while Congress is away on summer vacation.

She worries that a failure to raise the debt ceiling could have very negative consequences.

So what happens if we default on our debt obligations? Well, for one, it would violate the Constitution, which says the “validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned.” No small thing. …U.S. debt instruments are currently considered the safest of safe assets because creditors believe they’ll be paid back on time and in full. …Calling our creditworthiness into question could therefore set off a chain reaction of global financial panic.

I agree.

Defaulting on the debt (i.e., not paying bondholders what they’ve been contractually promised) would be very damaging to financial markets.

In reality, however, what we’re really talking about is potentially a delay in making promised payments. Which would be harmful, though presumably not nearly as bad as long-run default.

And even a delay in payments might not happen if the Treasury Department made sure that tax revenue was set aside to make all promised payments to bondholders.

Though Ms. Rampell doesn’t like this idea, which is sometimes called “prioritization.”

Some right-wingers…have in the past suggested  that defaulting is no big deal, perhaps even desirable. They (mistakenly) think that a debt default would allow those in charge to unilaterally decide which bills deserve payment and which don’t, bypassing the democratic budget process.

I’m not sure why she says prioritization is a “mistaken” view.

I testified to Congress about this issue in 2013 and in 2016. If the debt limit isn’t raised, meaning no ability to issue new debt, that would be the same as an overnight balanced budget requirement (i.e., spending could only equal current tax revenue).

If that happened and Treasury made sure to prioritize interest payments (to avoid the potentially bad results Ms. Rampell and others warn about), who would have the power to stop that from happening?

I’m guessing lawsuits would be filed, but I can’t imagine a judge would issue an injunction to require a default.

Let’s dig deeper into this issue. Back in 2017, when a similar fight occurred, Heather Long of the Washington Post identified five reasons to worry.

Unless Trump and Congress pass a law raising the U.S. debt limit — a legal cap on how much the U.S. government is allowed to borrow — the Treasury Department will soon run out of money to pay its bills, triggering a first-in-modern-U.S.-history default that threatens to turn the world economy on its head. …The danger…is that at some point someone will miscalculate and the government will actually hit the debt limit, sparking a default, intentional or otherwise. Here are five reasons that would cause global panic.

How persuasive are these reasons?

First, it would trigger a wild ride for stocks and bonds. Wall Street doesn’t like bad surprises. …There would probably be an immediate, negative reaction in the markets.

If there’s an actual default, that would be horrible news.

If there’s a temporary default, that also would be bad news, though presumably far less catastrophic than a permanent default (though some will fan the flames of hysteria).

Second, America’s cheap funding source would end. …As soon as the United States actually defaults, investors would start suing the country, and they would almost certainly insist on much higher interest rates in the future.

Interest rates surely would climb because of the perception of added risk for investors.

Though I wonder by how much. I think Italy is heading toward a fiscal/financial crisis, yet investors are buying up plenty of that government’s debt at very low interest rates.

Third, real people won’t get paid. …The Trump administration would have to either stop payments to everyone or they would have to pick who gets paid and who does not. That means deciding between bondholders, Social Security recipients, welfare recipients, …etc.

Interesting, Ms. Long accepts that prioritization would happen.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing bondholders and Social Security recipients would be at the front of the line.

Fourth, America’s global power would decline. …The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. People carry dollars and hold U.S. bonds all over the world because they believe America is their best and safest bet. A default would probably cause the value of the dollar to drop and global investors to shift some money out of U.S. assets.

This is an interesting claim.

The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

Does drama over the debt limit, or even a temporary default, lead investors to shift, en masse, to another currency?

Perhaps, though I don’t see an alternative. The euro is compromised because the European Central Bank surrendered its independence by engaging in indirect bailouts of some of Europe’s decrepit welfare states.

The Chinese financial system is too debt ridden and too opaque to give investors confidence in that nation’s currency. And other nations are simply too small.

Fifth, a recession is possible. …hitting the debt limit could cause a sharp drop in markets and sentiment around the world as everyone worries that if the United States defaults, who’s next? Investors might start panicking and ditching bonds of other countries in Europe and Asia, too.

These are all reasonable concerns.

It all depends, of course, whether there’s a temporary default and how long it lasts.

And since we may be in the midst of a debt bubble fueled by easy money, any triggering event could lead to very bad outcomes.

Which is why it would make sense for lawmakers to embrace prioritization. There has been legislation to make that happen.

For what it’s worth, it should be quite feasible to prioritize.

Here’s the latest 10-year forecast from the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see from the parts I’ve circled, the government is projected to collect far more revenue than would be needed to fulfill obligations to bondholders.

To be sure, prioritization means that some recipients of federal largesse would have to wait in line. This would be unseemly and unwelcome, but it already happens in profligate states such as Illinois without causing any economic or fiscal disarray.

Who knows, maybe politicians would even decide that it’s time to jettison some federal programs. But since I understand “public choice,” I won’t be holding my breath awaiting that outcome.

I’ll close with two observations.

The first, which I’ve already discussed, is that a failure to increase the debt limit should not result in default. Unless, of course, the Treasury Department wants that to happen. But that’s inconceivable, which is why I fully expect prioritization if we ever get to that point.

The second is that debt limit fights are messy and counterproductive, but I don’t want it abolished since there’s a chance that one of these battles eventually may force politicians to deal with our fiscal mess – thus saving the country from a future Greek-style economic and fiscal meltdown.

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It appears that the government shutdown, which technically is a battle over annual appropriations legislation for so-called discretionary spending, is going to drag on for a while.

The Obama Administration has shown zero willingness to negotiate, even though Republicans have made a series of offers to resolve the conflict.

And the longer this fight lasts, the more likely that the shutdown battle will get wrapped up in a bigger fight over the debt limit.

The White House apparently thinks this is a good development because of the assumption that GOPers can be stampeded into a bad deal to keep the government from supposedly defaulting.

Indeed, the Administration already is fanning the flames of economic anxiety. Here’s some of what the Treasury Department recently wrote as part of this world-is-ending hysteria.

A default would be unprecedented and has the potential to be catastrophic: credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, U.S. interest rates could skyrocket, the negative spillovers could reverberate around the world, and there might be a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse.

I’m surprised they didn’t warn about the four horsemen of the apocalypse and also say that default would mean cancer, tooth decay, and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

On a more serious note, there are three things about the Treasury report that are worth noting.

1. The Obama Administration is deliberately trying to blur the difference between defaulting on the debt, which would have real consequences, and “defaulting on obligations,” which is a catch-all phrase that includes mundane and uneventful matters such as postponing a Medicare payment to a hospital or delaying a grant disbursement to a state government.

2. The Treasury report repeatedly says bad things “could” happen and “might” happen, but never that they “will” happen. Well, I “could” be the clean-up batter next year for the New York Yankees, and I “might” date a couple of supermodels from Victoria’s Secret. But I wouldn’t want to bet my life on either of those things happening. Likewise, don’t hold your breath waiting for the sky to fall if the debt limit isn’t immediately increased.

3. The White House wants people to believe genuine default is likely even though tax receipts this fiscal year are expected to be more than $3 trillion and interest on the debt is projected to be only $237 billion. In other words, the Treasury will collect more than 12 times as much revenue as needed to pay interest on the debt. Even someone like me, with my well-known views on the incompetence of the federal government, thinks that the Treasury Department will have no problem figuring out how to avoid default.

To be sure, there would be some real problems if the debt limit wasn’t raised. The Treasury Department would have to override its own system to stop payments from automatically occurring. The bureaucrats would have to figure out how to prioritize payments.

Interest unquestionably would be paid on the debt, so there’s no real possibility of default. One also assumes the Administration would figure out how to make politically sensitive payments such as Social Security checks. But this would be uncharted territory, so things probably would be messy.

All that being said, I want to reiterate that a default only would happen if the White House wanted it to happen. And while the Obama Administration has shown a willingness to inflict pain on innocent third parties – as illustrated by the attempts to inconvenience Americans when the sequester imposed a tiny bit of fiscal restraint, it is inconceivable that the White House would decide to engineer an actual default.

By the way, it’s not just partisan political operatives in the Obama Administration who are making hysterical assertions.

Here are some blurbs from a Wall Street Journal report showing that the CEO of Goldman Sachs seems to be on the same page as the White House.

“There’s precedent for a government shutdown. There’s no precedent for default,”Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein said after emerging from an hour-long meeting between Mr. Obama and top financial executives. The executives, in town for a series of meetings arranged by the Financial Services Forum trade group, told Mr. Obama that even the possibility of the U.S. defaulting on its debt, should policy makers fail to raise the ceiling on the nation’s borrowing, would derail the nascent recovery and cause economic harm. Mr. Blankfein said they told Mr. Obama “exactly how bad it would be.”

And here are parts of a story from the UK-based Guardian about the views of the IMF’s head bureaucrat.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, urged America’s politicians to settle their differences before the dispute harmed the entire global economy. Speaking ahead of the fund’s annual meeting in Washington next week, Lagarde said it was “mission critical” that Democrats and Republicans raise the US debt ceiling before the 17 October deadline. Lagarde said the dispute was a fresh setback for a global economy… “In the midst of this fiscal challenge, the ongoing political uncertainty over the budget and the debt ceiling does not help. The government shutdown is bad enough, but failure to raise the debt ceiling would be far worse, and could very seriously damage not only the US economy, but the entire global economy.”

So what’s going on? Why are they making these hyperbolic statements?

Beats me, but here are my three theories.

1. They don’t know what they’re talking about, either because of stupidity or laziness. Since neither Blankfein nor Lagarde are stupid, perhaps they are simply too lazy to learn how the federal government operates and they don’t understand that the Treasury Department will have far more money than is needed to pay interest on the debt.

2. They understand the issues, but they’re willing to make dishonest and misleading statements because they want to please the White House. This could be because they sympathize with the President’s agenda. Or perhaps this is a typical case of DC-style horsetrading, with Blankfein supporting the White House in exchange for some sort of regulatory favor and Lagarde providing help to Obama in exchange for more subsidies from American taxpayers for the IMF.

3. They understand the issues, but are genuinely afraid that the President is so petty and ideological that he might deliberately force a default, so they are warning about the risks of that approach. Seems totally improbable, but keep in minds that the White House is so petty and spiteful that it has been spending money in a shutdown to keep elderly WWII vets from visiting an open-air memorial!

I’m guessing the second option is most accurate, but there’s no way to know for sure.

In closing, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. What’s America’s biggest long-run economic challenge? Almost surely, the answer is that poorly designed entitlement programs will lead to a much more onerous burden of government spending.

The President made this problem worse with Obamacare (just as Bush made it worse with the prescription drug entitlement).

Advocates of fiscal responsibility want to address this problem now, before we get close to the point of a Greek-style fiscal collapse.

I’m not sure they can win, given the structure of America’s political system, but I’m damn sure glad that at least some people are trying to do what’s best for the country.

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…Well, I’m not sure what it means. But it sure doesn’t make sense when you look at the big picture. A credit card company wouldn’t increase a deadbeat’s credit limit, so why is it a sign of fiscal prudence to give Uncle Sam more borrowing authority?

That being said, I never thought it was realistic to block a debt limit increase. Indeed, I fully expected an unsatisfactory result.

But this cartoon is a pretty good summary of how Washington thinks.

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Here’s the video that won the lucrative Powerline prize. Perhaps not as catchy as the entry I posted a couple of days ago, but very well done, with a proper focus on excessive government.

And here’s a video just released by Cato on why the debt deal – at best – is a holding action that postpones the real fights until later. I give some analysis, along with my colleagues Chris Edwards and Jagadeesh Gokhale.

And here’s some of what I wrote in a column for CNN. My basic messages is that establishment politicians of both parties got what they wanted – which was no heavy lifting and all tough choices postponed. (I also wrote it early yesterday on the assumption that the bill would pass both the House and Senate, so I’m glad I didn’t look like a fool)

…politicians of both parties were the victors and taxpayers are the ones left in the cold. In other words, the budget deal was a victory for the political establishment. Here’s why Republicans are winners. They get to tell their tea party activists that they forced Obama to cut spending. It doesn’t matter that federal spending will actually be higher every year and that the cuts were based on Washington math (a spending increase becomes a spending cut if outlays don’t climb as fast as some artificial benchmark). They also get to tell their anti-tax activists that they held the line. Perhaps most important, the supercommittee must use the “current law” baseline, which assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. But why are GOPers happy about this, considering they want those tax cuts extended? For the simple reason that Democrats on the supercommittee therefore can’t use repeal of the “Bush tax cuts for the rich” as a revenue raiser. This means that most Republican incumbents are well-positioned to win re-election. Here’s why Democrats are winners. Thanks to the magic of government math, despite all the talk of budget cuts, discretionary spending will be more than $100 billion higher in 2021 than it is this year. And since defense spending in Iraq and Afghanistan presumably is winding down, this means even more money will be available for domestic programs. In addition to telling the pro-spending lobbies that the gravy train is still on the tracks, they also get to tell the class-warfare crowd that there’s an improved likelihood of higher taxes for corporate jet owners and other “rich” people. Notwithstanding GOP assertions, nothing in the agreement precludes the supercommittee from meeting its $1.5 trillion target with tax revenue. The 2001 and 2003 tax legislation is not an option, but everything else is on the table. This means that most Democratic incumbents are well-positioned to win re-election.

But don’t forget that postponing a fight doesn’t make it go away. We’ll have at least two more big fiscal fights this year – the spending bills for fiscal year 2012 (which begins October 1) and the “super committee,” which has to make recommendations by Thanksgiving. I’ll have more to say on those issues soon.

Last but not least, here’s an entry in the Powerline contest from my Cato colleague Caleb Brown. I like the huckster theme.

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Considering the Democrats control the Senate and the White House, I actually think the Republican leadership did a decent job in the debt negotiations. Of course, I had low expectations, but did anybody expect miracles with Obama in the White House?

As you might expect, this means the agreement is – at best – a tiny step on a long journey.

I’ve already looked at the revenue part of the deal, so let’s turn our attention to the spending side of the fiscal ledger. Specifically, the supposed spending cuts for the “discretionary” part of the budget.*

This chart shows you everything you need to understand about the budget deal. The top line (fuchsia, I’m told) is the “discretionary baseline,” which is an estimate of how fast spending would increase to keep pace with factors such as inflation. The next line shows how fast discretionary spending will grow under the budget agreement.

The good news is that discretionary spending does not grow as fast with the budget agreement. The bad news is that it still grows. In other words, the supposed “budget cuts” are based on Washington math, where a spending increase is called a spending cut simply because outlays didn’t rise even faster.

But the really bad news is that the burden of discretionary spending – over the entire 10-year period – will be more than twice as large as it was in 2000. In other words, the budget deal basically leaves unchallenged the entire Bush-Obama spending binge.

But, as the old saying goes, a journey of 14.3 trillion miles begins with a first step.

*By way of background, the federal budget has three types of spending. Entitlements, which are “permanently appropriated” and increase automatically. Net interest, which is the one part of the budget that truly is uncontrollable. And discretionary, which are the parts of the budget funded by annual appropriations bills.

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Politicians last night announced the framework of a deal to increase the debt limit. In addition to authorizing about $900 billion more red ink right away, it would require immediate budget cuts of more than $900 billion, though “immediate” means over 10 years and “budget cuts” means spending still goes up (but not as fast as previously planned).

But that’s the relatively uncontroversial part. The fighting we’re seeing today revolves around a “super-committee” that’s been created to find $1.5 trillion of additional “deficit reduction” over the next 10 years (based on Washington math, of course).

And much of the squabbling is about whether the super-committee is a vehicle for higher taxes. As with all kiss-your-sister budget deals, both sides can point to something they like.

Here’s what Republicans like:

The super-committee must use the “current law” baseline, which assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. But why are GOPers happy about this, considering they want those tax cuts extended? For the simple reason that Democrats on the super-committee therefore can’t use repeal of the “Bush tax cuts for the rich” as a revenue raiser.

Here’s what Democrats like:

There appears to be nothing in the agreement to preclude the super-committee from meeting its $1.5 trillion target with tax revenue. The 2001 and 2003 tax legislation is not an option, but everything else is on the table (notwithstanding GOP claims that it is “impossible for Joint Committee to increase taxes”).

In other words, there is a risk of tax hikes, just as I warned last week. Indeed, the five-step scenario I outlined last week needs to be modified because now a tax-hike deal would be “vital” to not only “protect” the nation from alleged default, but also to forestall the “brutal” sequester that might take place in the absence of an agreement.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just read the fact sheet distributed by the White House, which is filled with class warfare rhetoric about “shared sacrifice.”

This doesn’t mean there will be tax increases, of course, and this doesn’t mean Boehner and McConnell gave up more than Obama, Reid, and Pelosi.

But as someone who assumes politicians will do the wrong thing whenever possible, it’s always good to identify the worst-case scenario and then prepare to explain why it’s not a good idea.

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Thanks, Glenn.

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Two of my rules for fiscal policy are:

1) The details of any budget agreement will be to the left of what is first announced, and,

2) The “spending cuts” in any budget agreement will evaporate within two years.

With this in mind, I’m not expecting to be overjoyed when we get the details of the supposed agreement.

So let’s pass the time with some debt-ceiling entertainment (who knew such a genre even existed?).

We’ll start with one of the entries in Powerline’s debt contest. This video didn’t win a prize, but I urge you to share this post widely because the creator highlighted excessive spending and redistribution, thus putting the focus on the real problem of too much government rather than just looking at the symptom of too much red ink.

And the video also is entertaining.

And for downright cleverness, let’s look at the horrible things that happen, if Iowahawk’s predictions are accurate, if the government shuts down.

Beltway policy experts begin living by own wits; after 45 minutes there are no survivors.

Roving bands of outlaws stalk our streets, selling incandescent bulbs to vulnerable children.

Unregulated mohair prices at the whim of unscrupulous mohair speculators.

NPR news segments no longer buffered by soothing zither interludes.

Breadlines teeming with jobless Outreach Coordinators, Diversity Liaisons, and Sustainability Facilitators.

Cowboy poetry utterly lacking in metre.

General Motors unfairly forced to build cars that people want, for a profit.

Chaos reigns at Goldman Sachs, who no longer knows who to bribe with political donations.

Mankind’s dream of high speed government rail service between Chicago and Iowa City tragically dies.

Sesame Street descends into Mad Maxian anarchy; Oscar the Grouch fashions shivs out the letter J and the number 4

No longer protected by government warning labels, massive wave of amputations from people sticking limbs into lawn mowers

New York devolves into a dystopian hellscape of sugared cola moonshiners, salty snackhouses and tobacco dens.

At-risk Mexican drug lords forced to buy own machine guns.

Chevy Volt rebate checks bounce, stranded owners more than 50 miles from outlet.

WH communications office reduced to sending talking points to Media Matters via smoke signals and log drums.

Potential 5-year old terrorists head to boarding gates ungroped.

Defenseless mortgage holders forced to live in houses they can actually afford.

Without college loan program, America loses an entire generation of Marxist Dance Theorists.

Embarrassing state dinners, as Obamas are forced to downgrade from Wagyu to Kobe beef.

President Obama places tarp over Washington Monument to conceal from Chinese repo men.

With the Dept of Ed shuttered, national school quality plummets to 1960s levels.

Anthony Weiner is forced to pay for own sex addiction therapy.

Displaced teenaged policy wonks organize under Supreme Warlord Ezra Klein.

Nation’s freeway exits croweded with desperate bureaucrats waving ‘will regulate for food’ signs.

State Department diplomacy becomes 38% less diplomatic.

WH holds rummage sale Rose Garden; all HOPE merchandise, styrofoam Greek columns 95% off.

Iowahawk, by the way, is the creator of the funniest public policy video ever produced. You will watch it more than one time.

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