Defaulting to big government
U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (R) and U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) (2nd L) answer questions during a press conference on a balanced budget amendment at the U.S. Capitol July 14, 2011. (Getty Images)
July 18th, 2011
12:49 PM ET

Defaulting to big government

Editor's Note:  Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the IMF, is co-founder of a leading economics blog, BaselineScenario,a professor at MIT Sloan, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and co-author, with James Kwak, of 13 Bankers. For more from Johnson, visit Project Syndicate’s website or check it out on Facebook and Twitter.

By Simon Johnson

Leading United States congressmen are determined to provoke a showdown with the Obama administration over the federal government’s debt ceiling. Ordinarily, you might expect House Republicans to blink at this stage of the negotiations, but there is a hardline minority that actually appears to think that defaulting on government debt would not be a bad thing.

These representatives – with whom I've interacted at three congressional hearings recently – are convinced that the US federal government is too big relative to the economy, and that drastic measures are needed to bring it under control. Depending on your assessment of “Tea Party” strength on Capitol Hill, at least a partial debt default does not seem as implausible as it did in the past – and recent warnings from ratings agencies reflect this heightened risk.

But the consequences of any default would, ironically, actually increase the size of government relative to the US economy – the very outcome that Republican intransigents claim to be trying to avoid.

The reason is simple: a government default would destroy the credit system as we know it. The fundamental benchmark interest rates in modern financial markets are the so-called “risk-free” rates on government bonds. Removing this pillar of the system – or creating a high degree of risk around US Treasuries – would disrupt many private contracts and all kinds of transactions.

In addition, many people and firms hold their “rainy day money” in the form of US Treasuries. The money-market funds that are perceived to be the safest, for example, are those that hold only US government debt. If the US government defaults, however, all of them will “break the buck,” meaning that they will be unable to maintain the principal value of the money that has been placed with them.

The result would be capital flight – but to where? Many banks would have a similar problem: a collapse in US Treasury prices (the counterpart of higher interest rates, as bond prices and interest rates move in opposite directions) would destroy their balance sheets.

There is no company in the US that would be unaffected by a government default – and no bank or other financial institution that could provide a secure haven for savings. There would be a massive run into cash, on an order not seen since the Great Depression, with long lines of people at ATMs and teller windows withdrawing as much as possible.

Private credit, moreover, would disappear from the US economic system, confronting the Federal Reserve with an unpleasant choice. Either it could step in and provide an enormous amount of credit directly to households and firms (much like Gosbank, the Soviet Union’s central bank), or it could stand by idly while GDP falls 20-30% – the magnitude of decline that we have seen in modern economies when credit suddenly dries up.

With the private sector in free fall, consumption and investment would decline sharply. America’s ability to export would also be undermined, because foreign markets would likely be affected, and because, in any case, if export firms cannot get credit, they most likely cannot produce.

The Republicans are right about one thing: a default would cause government spending to contract in real terms. But which would fall more, government spending or the size of the private sector? The answer is almost certainly the private sector, given its dependence on credit to purchase inputs. Indeed, take the contraction that followed the near-collapse of the financial system in 2008 and multiply it by ten.

The government, on the other hand, has access to the Fed, and could therefore get its hands on cash to pay wages. With the debt ceiling unchanged, this would require some legal sleight of hand. But the alternative would clearly be a collapse of US national security – soldiers and border guards have to be paid, the transportation system must operate, and so on.

Issuing money in this situation would almost certainly be inflationary, but the Fed might conclude otherwise, because the US has never been in this situation before, credit is now imploding, and the desperate credit-expansion measures implemented in 2008 proved not to be as bad as the critics feared.

So this is what a US debt default would look like: the private sector would collapse, unemployment would quickly surpass 20%, and, while the government would shrink, it would remain the employer of last resort.

The House and Senate Republicans who do not want to raise the debt ceiling are playing with fire. They are advocating a policy that would have dire effects, and that would accomplish the opposite of what they claim to want, because a default would immediately make the government more, not less, important.

The only law that Congress cannot repeal is the law of unintended consequences.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Simon Johnson. For more from Johnson, click here. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011, http://www.project-syndicate.org.


soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. [(S3kShuN8)]

    Option One
    (Chapter Eleven)
    USCODEQW:"___Blue_Eagle___"
    I recently came across a US Quarter with Puerto Rico on it. If I were a governor, this would infuriate me. Why should minor territories recieve the same treatment as States if they do not want a greater emphasis on State Government?
    There are reasons for 'selective separation' (firewalls) between Church and State at the Federal Level.
    There are also reasons for 'selective separation' between BIG Government and Bloated Government. When I see the word "bloated" I think about the rotting carcass of a dead animal, internally writhing with maggots and swarming with flies... Like it or not, that's how the rest of Earth sees us right now. The Question I pose today is this:
    {"_IS_THAT_the_BeSTTuCan_DO__?"}

    July 18, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  2. Michelle G

    I really don't think the politicians in Washington are stupid enough to let a default happen. It's just going to come down to who gives first- which side values the country over their own egos.

    July 18, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      I'm afraid there are a couple around, who capitalise on the distress of the nation to make a name for themselves.

      July 18, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Reply
    • akryan

      I would have always thought so too, but after watching MN fall apart I got to thinking that when people play chicken sometimes it ends up in a car crash. I'm not convinced that they won't screw this up and go over the edge.

      July 19, 2011 at 4:49 am | Reply
  3. [(S3kShuN8)]

    The one thing which cannot and MUST NOT change about the United States is this:
    CCRB==_Tea/Republic_+_Democracy_==_UNITED_STATES_
    Number_crunching_is_an_expert_task_best_left_to_those_who_know_how_to_recognize_an_opportunity_hidden_within_a_simple_task.
    RBCC = .SEE..renewable_energy_sources_._harnessing_Lightning_.

    July 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  4. [(S3kShuN8)]

    "A Call to Action"
    (_dreamstream_)
    Song playing at the _Yellow_House_ today: CCR, etc.

    If the TWO PARTIES REFUSE TO COME TO ORDER ON THE MATTER AT HAND then I say, {!}_ASK_NOT_WHAT_YOUR_COUNTRY_CAN_DO_FOR_YOU__ASK_WHAT_YOU_CAN_DO_FOR_YOURe_COUNTRY_{!}

    July 18, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  5. [(S3kShuN8)]

    it doesn't get any more basic than that. 'Nuff said'

    July 18, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  6. Alethean

    Let it default. It's time to face the music.

    July 18, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Reply
  7. [(S3kShuN8)]

    [FROM the Cafferty File]
    July 18, 2011
    What's your greatest fear if the U.S. fails to raise debt ceiling?
    Posted: 04:25 PM ET

    Blank U.S. Treasury checks are run through a printer at the U.S. Treasury printing facility in Philadelphia. President Obama recently stated he can't guarantee retirees will receive their Social Security checks in August if the House and Senate can not reach an agreement on reducing the deficit. (PHOTO CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES)

    FROM CNN's Jack Cafferty:

    On August 3, the U.S. government is scheduled to pay $23 billion in Social Security benefits. But if a deal isn't reached in Congress to raise the debt ceiling, there's a chance those checks won't go out. That's because only $12 billion in revenue is expected to come in that day, which would leave the Treasury a cool $11 billion short, according to Politico.com.

    Without an agreement, the federal government's line of credit will run out, and so will its options to write those checks. And when you include other payments scheduled that day, the federal government will be $20 billion short. Wonderful.

    That's just one scenario, of course. Talking heads from Washington to Wall Street have weighed in with predictions on what could happen if a deal isn't reached – everything from a financial apocalypse to a nonevent. The administration has used words like "calamitous," "catastrophic" and "Armageddon." But a handful of vocal Republicans say the Obama administration is exaggerating the situation. They claim not a whole lot would happen if an agreement isn't reached by August 2.

    But by and large, most economists say if the United States defaults on some of its loans, interest rates would shoot up, the dollar would plummet, stock markets around the world would tumble and our very fragile economy could suffer a mighty blow. Suffice it to say there doesn't appear to be a lot of upside to Uncle Sam defaulting on his obligations.

    Tune in to the Situation Room at 6pm to see if Jack reads your answer on air.

    And, we love to know where you’re writing from, so please include your city and state with your comment.

    Filed under: Congress •National debt

    296 Comments | Permalink

    +1 : What's with you guys at CNN? I am nothing more than one small voice!.!.!.

    Franck July 18th, 2011 6:29 pm ET

    A mini stock market crash..
    My 401k does not need that...

    Comments have been closed for this article

    July 18, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Reply
    • [(S3kShuN8)]

      My greatest fear was just realized. I didn't even make the cut into the Internet list of posts despite writing from the heart. Thanks Jack, I really needed the morale booster there. Sorry if the naming thing is throwing you off, that's just the Old School way kicking in...

      July 18, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Reply
  8. dnboc

    or the fed could just absorb the debt just like they did the housing crisis. The fed can, and wants to absorb debt.

    July 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  9. [(S3kShuN8)]

    FILM @ 11:11:11 RE: Posts gettiing eaten on CNN 'globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com'
    UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT re: Chapter Eleven Operational Parameters. (Query).

    July 18, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Reply
  10. [(S3kShuN8)]

    ...has it come to this, really? _Censorship_ of the Individual, regardless of percieved _negative_aspects_ ??
    Or is something deeper emerging here?
    _This_Writer_ has something to say on rare occasions, and chooses this forum for that purpose.
    FZFZ do I need a third FZ? (l0l)

    July 18, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  11. [(S3kShuN8)]

    ffZZzzZZ.FFff().IO.??.WTTW._RE:_TweeT_.
    ( [ WWW ] = [X,Y,Z] ) == (xyz)*WWW*@!:;

    July 18, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Reply
  12. [(S3kShuN8)]

    TThis_may_0n_occasion_defy_conventional_logic_but_hopefully_n0t_Conventional_Wisdom:
    TThis_by_Nature_Requires_a_broader__Perspective__:(5×5):speQ:_a_fly_on_the_wall_.
    .see:speQ:??:...;~~~010~;.what do you see?.;...

    July 18, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Reply
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    July 19, 2011 at 9:36 am | Reply
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    July 19, 2011 at 10:19 am | Reply
  17. [(S3kShuN8)]

    ...really, _ThaT_ gets thru but my stuff is snuffed out en-passant every time?
    All I can say is this, I am _DEFINITELY_ registering to Vote in 2012 !!!!!:!!!! :: ## ::

    July 19, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  18. [(S3kShuN8)]

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