May 25, 2017

It’s the Economy: Our Debt to Society

This is the definition of a deficit, and it illustrates why the government needs to borrow money almost every day to pay its bills. Of course, all that daily borrowing adds up, and we are rapidly approaching what is called the X-Date — the day, somewhere in the next six weeks, when the government, by law, cannot borrow another penny. 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.

Nearly everyone involved predicts that someone will blink before this disaster occurs. Yet a small number of House Republicans (one political analyst told me it’s no more than 20) appear willing to see what happens if the debt ceiling isn’t raised — at least for a bit. This could be used as leverage to force Democrats to drastically cut government spending and eliminate President Obama’s signature health-care-reform plan. In fact, Representative Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, told me that the whole problem could be avoided if the president agreed to drastically cut spending and lower taxes. Still, it is hard to put this act of game theory into historic context. Plenty of countries — and some cities, like Detroit — have defaulted on their financial obligations, but only because their governments ran out of money to pay their bills. 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.

Like many, I assumed a self-imposed U.S. debt crisis might unfold like most involuntary ones. 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.

Instead, Robert Auwaerter, head of bond investing for Vanguard, the world’s largest mutual-fund company, told me that the collapse might be more insidious. “You know what happens when the market gets upset?” he said. “There’s a flight to quality. Investors buy Treasury bonds. It’s a bit perverse.” In other words, if the U.S. comes within shouting distance of a default (which Auwaerter is confident won’t happen), the world’s investors — absent a safer alternative, given the recent fates of the euro and the yen — might actually buy even more Treasury bonds. Indeed, interest rates would fall and the bond markets would soar.

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