…chaos, painful chaos…
What would happen if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling? The answer is chaos, painful chaos that would have horrific short-term implications for not just the US but the global economy. Here’s why.
Refusing to raise the debt ceiling of course could mean that the government is unable to send out social security checks in a timely manner, or otherwise pay its bills. Mind you, these are all programs duly legislated with expenditures authorized by Congress. So the proper way to do things is to change the law. If members of Congress don’t think they can get re-elected if they do that, then … but let me stick to the economics.
The real nightmare is the uncertainty this would throw into credit markets. The impact would be concentrated in short-term markets, because that’s the debt that (by definition!) falls due. An awful lot of our economy is tied to those markets – money market funds, the prime rate that affects small business loans, car loans and credit card interest rates, and of course that also affects the holding cost of financial institutions with short-term funding needs. The Federal Reserve can work to keep the Federal Funds rate low, but that’s an arm’s length removed, and at best helps out banks. As we’ve seen, however, the straight banking portion of our financial system is a shadow of its former self, while the shadow banks have taken over.
Normally there’s virtually no capital gains risk, upside or downside, in short-term markets – one reason that interest rates are typically much lower. But what if you have a Treaury maturing 5 days from now, and you’re not sure it will be good. Now you will get your money, sooner rather than later, but the certainty is gone. Suddenly you’re in a seller’s market, and face a loss if you try to sell it — but the possibility of no money on day 5 if you don’t.
Now at today’s interest rates – let’s say 0.04% pa, the rate on a one-month bond at the end of December 2012 – well, a $1 million bond earns roughly $1 a day. But if you’re a corporate treasurer that really needs the money to make payroll, you may well prefer to take a $100 loss on your $1 million – that is, get $999,900 today – than have a bunch of workers seeking to lynch you because their car payment check bounced. But that means a 4% interest rate – and if we look at what happened when Lehman failed, rates could go much higher.
That doesn’t sound like much, but it would put money market mutual funds at risk, as many have committed to holding short-term Treasuries to minimize risk. Ditto foreign exchange trader from around the globe. With trillions of dollars traded every day, a jump in interest rates of that magnitude would throw a monkey wrench in the economy that would make the fiscal cliff look as flat as a bowling alley.
So I think that an administration pushed into a corner would in fact be willing to do almost anything, even delay social security payments, to avoid a bond default. But market managers won’t want to place their careers at risk of politicians, most of whom are lawyers, failing to get their priorities straight. Unlike with the fiscal cliff, a last-minute compromise will thus still cause chaos.
I try to avoid hyperbole, but to me it would be treason – far more dangerous to the US than spilling top secrets – for Congress to use the debt ceiling as a political tool.