The Cost of Playing Games with the Full Faith and Credit of the United States

I spent last week in Rio attending a meeting of the IMF’s advisory board for the Western Hemisphere — and returned this week to Washington for the latest round of threats and charges over raising the U.S. debt limit. The contrast was, at once, disturbing and farcical. At the IMF meeting, former finance ministers, prime ministers and other ex-economic policy officials tried to unravel the grim implications for all of us if (when) Greece, Portugal or, in the worst case, Spain is forced to default on their sovereign debts. Back in Washington, congressional Republicans laid out their terms for not driving the United States into a voluntary default on its sovereign debt. Perhaps holding onto a child-like faith that bad things don’t happen to the United States, under God, they spelled out terms which everyone knows will never be accepted by President Obama and a Democratic Senate. The irony is that the GOP gambit of holding out a potential debt default if they don’t get their way could, in itself, make long-term control over deficits much harder.

The reason lies in the powerful influence of worldwide investors on our interest rates. Thankfully, global capital markets still have confidence that our two political parties can settle this dispute on reasonable terms, and that in time the United States will regain control over its deficits and debt. We know that confidence is still there, because the interest rates and yields on U.S. Treasury bills, notes and bonds all remain near historic lows. If there were real doubts about our capacity to control long-term deficits, those interest rates would be rising as investors demanded higher returns to offset the risk that we’ll fail. This confidence makes sense, because we succeeded at the same task twice before, in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. It took several years of squabbling and compromise, but President Reagan and a Democratic House agreed to raise taxes, cut defense and reduce Medicare and Medicaid spending in the 1980s — and the same pattern played out again a decade later with President Clinton and, first, a Democratic House and then a GOP one. That combination of revenues, defense and health care was, and remains today, inevitable, since those are the only pieces of fiscal policy big enough for cuts and reforms that can make a significant difference for deficits.

But neither Reagan nor Clinton faced opponents prepared to hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage to their own partisan approach to the deficit. To make this gambit appear respectable, House Majority Leader Cantor even claimed last week that major players on Wall Street had assured him that a U.S. default would be a matter of economic indifference. The only explanation is that Mr. Cantor, without realizing it, was talking to short-sellers getting ready to bet billions that U.S. stocks and bonds might crash — as they will if we actually do default.

Happily, worldwide investors are probably correct that the likelihood of a U.S. debt default is still very, very small. If it ever came close to that, the real players on Wall Street would face down the U.S. Congress. But cutting it close may turn out to be very expensive, too.

Let’s perform a small thought experiment. A Tea-Party infused GOP takes us to the edge of default and then pulls back. A really close call, however, would almost certainly make worldwide investors nervous. They would begin to question whether our politics truly are up to the task of dealing with our deficits, so they add a small risk premium to our interest rates. Let’s say — and this would be optimistic in this scenario — that short-term rates on Treasury bills go up one-half of a percentage-point; medium-term rates on Treasury notes rise three-quarters of a percentage-point, and long-term rates on U.S. bonds increase by 1.25 percentage-points.

Now, let’s be optimistic again and assume that Congress and the President eventually agree to cut the 2012 deficit by 10 percent — $108 billion off of the current projection of $1.081 trillion. That will leave a 2012 deficit of $973 billion to be financed. The small increases to interest rates would add about $7 billion just to the first-year interest costs of the 2012 deficit. And that’s just the beginning: All publicly-held Treasury bills also have to be refinanced in 2012 — nearly $2 trillion worth at last count. The tiny 0.50 percentage-point increase in those rates would add another $10 billion to next year’s interest costs. That comes to $17 billion in extra interest costs in just the first year, and just on publically-held debt. Those premiums would become embedded in those interest rates, adding much more to our interest costs, year after year, as additional deficits have to be financed and some $7 trillion in publicly-held Treasury notes and bonds come due for refinancing. A single refinancing of that current stock of publicly-held Treasury notes and bonds, with the new risk premiums, would add more than $50 billion, per-year, to interest costs. And the actual risk premiums demanded by global investors could be significantly higher than we assume here, and so that much more expensive.

These incremental increases in interest rates also wouldn’t be confined to U.S. Treasury rates; they would be transmitted immediately to other interest rates, from mortgages to credit cards. That means the expansion would further slow, American incomes and the government’s revenues would grow less, and, lo and behold, the deficits would be even bigger.

That’s the math. Even if congressional Republicans don’t mean it, the political games they’re playing today with a U.S. debt default, purportedly in the name of fiscal responsibility, could make U.S. deficits and debt even more unmanageable, and U.S. prosperity more problematic.