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Monday, September 16, 2013

Notes on our debt limit--and what some Republicans are thinking of doing to us all


 
There is a terrific, simply factual article in yesterday's NY Times Magazine about the nation's debt limit and how several Republicans are considering trashing the nation's debt--and so, economy--just so they can make some points and get their way.
 
 

The most poignant, brief quotes from it:
 
Congress has imposed a strict limit on how much debt the federal government can accumulate, but for nearly 90 years, it has raised the ceiling well before it was reached. But since a large number of Tea Party-aligned Republicans entered the House of Representatives, in 2011, raising that debt ceiling has become a matter of fierce debate. This summer, House Republicans have promised, in Speaker John Boehner’s words, “a whale of a fight” before they raise the debt ceiling — if they even raise it at all.

If the debt ceiling isn’t lifted again this fall, some serious financial decisions will have to be made. Perhaps the government can skimp on its foreign aid or furlough all of NASA, but eventually the big-ticket items, like Social Security and Medicare, will have to be cut. At some point, the government won’t be able to pay interest on its bonds and will enter what’s known as sovereign default, the ultimate national financial disaster achieved by countries like Zimbabwe, Ecuador and Argentina (and now Greece). In the case of the United States, though, it won’t be an isolated national crisis. If the American government can’t stand behind the dollar, the world’s benchmark currency, then the global financial system will very likely enter a new era in which there is much less trade and much less economic growth. It would be, by most accounts, the largest self-imposed financial disaster in history....

...No wealthy country has ever voluntarily decided — in the middle of an economic recovery, no less — to default. And there’s certainly no record of that happening to the country that controls the global reserve currency.

 If the debt ceiling isn’t raised by X-Day, I figured, the world’s investors would begin to see America as an unstable investment and rush to sell their Treasury bonds. The U.S. government, desperate to hold on to investment, would then raise interest rates far higher, hurtling up rates on credit cards, student loans, mortgages and corporate borrowing — which would effectively put a clamp on all trade and spending. The U.S. economy would collapse far worse than anything we’ve seen in the past several years.
 

While this possibility might not sound so bad, it’s really far more damaging than the apocalyptic one I imagined. Rather than resulting in a sudden crisis, failure to raise the debt ceiling would lead to a slow bleed. Scott Mather, head of the global portfolio at Pimco, the world’s largest private bond fund, explained that while governments and institutions might go on a U.S.-bond buying frenzy in the wake of a debt-ceiling panic, they would eventually recognize that the U.S. government was not going through an odd, temporary bit of insanity. They would eventually conclude that it had become permanently less reliable. Mather imagines institutional investors and governments turning to a basket of currencies, putting their savings in a mix of U.S., European, Canadian, Australian and Japanese bonds. Over the course of decades, the U.S. would lose its unique role in the global economy.
      
The U.S. benefits enormously from its status as global reserve currency and safe haven. Our interest and mortgage rates are lower; companies are able to borrow money to finance their new products more cheaply. As a result, there is much more economic activity and more wealth in America than there would be otherwise. If that status erodes, the U.S. economy’s peaks will be lower and recessions deeper; future generations will have fewer job opportunities and suffer more when the economy falters. And, Mather points out, no other country would benefit from America’s diminished status. When you make the base risk-free asset more risky, the entire global economy becomes riskier and costlier.
 
And one final word of caution. Even if the Republicans don't "pull this trigger", so to speak, come October and have us default on our debt, there are still other concerns, thanks to their selfish, self-centered ways, for the rest of us:
 
...if the debate becomes an annual affair, the world’s largest investors probably will one day move toward a mix of other financial reserves. Decades from now, the world would probably be poorer on account of about only 20 people.

--Adam Davidson , co-founder of NPR’s “Planet Money,” a podcast and blog.
 
 

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