Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category

Since the day of Alexander Hamilton, the United States has never defaulted on the federal debt.

That’s what we budget-watchers always say. It’s a great talking point. One that helps bolster the argument that default should not be an option in Washington’s latest debt limit showdown.

There’s just one teensy problem: it isn’t exactly true. The United States defaulted on some Treasury bills in 1979 (ht: Jason Zweig). And it paid a steep price for stiffing bondholders.

Terry Zivney and Richard Marcus describe the default in The Financial Review (sorry, I can’t find an ungated version):

Investors in T-bills maturing April 26, 1979 were told that the U.S. Treasury could not make its payments on maturing securities to individual investors. The Treasury was also late in redeeming T-bills which become due on May 3 and May 10, 1979. The Treasury blamed this delay on an unprecedented volume of participation by small investors, on failure of Congress to act in a timely fashion on the debt ceiling legislation in April, and on an unanticipated failure of word processing equipment used to prepare check schedules.

The United States thus defaulted because Treasury’s back office was on the fritz in the wake of a debt limit showdown.

This default was temporary. Treasury did pay these T-bills after a short delay. But it balked at paying additional interest to cover the period of delay. According to Zivney and Marcus, it required both legal arm twisting and new legislation before Treasury made all investors whole for that additional interest.

The United States thus did default once. It was small. It was unintentional. But it was indeed a default.

And the nation still stands. But that hardly means we should run the experiment again and at larger scale. Zivney and Marcus examined what happened to T-bill interest rates as a result of this small, temporary default. They find a surprisingly large effect. As best they can tell, T-bill interest rates increased about 60 basis points after the first default and remained elevated for at least several months thereafter. A simple way to see that is to look at daily changes in T-bill yields:

1979 Treasury Default

T-bill rates spiked upwards four times in the months around the default. In November 1978, Henry “Dr. Doom” Kaufman predicted that interest rates would rise. They did. Turn-of-the-year cash management disrupted rates as 1978 became 1979. And rates spiked and fell in October 1979 when Paul Volcker announced that the Fed would target monetary aggregates rather than interest rates (the “Saturday night special”).

The fourth big move was the day of the first default, when T-bill rates rose almost 0.6 percentage points (i.e., 60 basis points).There’s no indication this increase reversed in the days that followed (the vertical line on the chart is just a marker for the day of default). Indeed, using more sophisticated means, including comparing T-bill rates to interest on commercial paper, the authors conclude that default led to a persistent increase in T-bill rates and, therefore, higher borrowing costs for the federal government.

The financial world has changed dramatically in the intervening decades. T-bill rates hover near zero compared to the 9-10 percent range of the late 1970s; that means a temporary delay in payments would be less costly for creditors. Treasury’s IT systems are, one hopes, more reliable that 1970s vintage word processors. And one should take care not to make too much of a single data point.

But it’s the only data point we have on a U.S. default. Not surprisingly it shows that even small, temporary default is a bad idea. Our leaders shouldn’t come close to risking it.

P.S. Some observers believe the United States also defaulted in 1933 when it abrogated the gold clause. The United States made its payments on time in dollars, but eliminated the option to take payment in gold. For a quick overview of this and related issues, see this blog post by Catherine Rampell and the associated comments.

P.P.S. This post originally appeared in May 2011. This version has been slightly edited.


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Ray Dalio, founder of the remarkably successful Bridgewater Associates, has released a 30 minute video explaining his vision of “How the Economic Machine Works.” Well worth watching, particularly his description of a beautiful deleveraging.

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Today I had the chance to testify before the Joint Economic Committee about a perennial challenge, the looming debt limit. Here are my opening remarks. You can find my full testimony here.

I’d like to make six points about the debt limit today.

First, Congress must increase the debt limit.

Failure to do so will result in severe economic harm. Treasury would have to delay billions, then tens of billions, then hundreds of billions of dollars of payments. Through no fault of their own, federal employees, contractors, program beneficiaries, and state and local governments would find themselves suddenly short of expected cash, creating a ripple effect through the economy. A prolonged delay would be a powerful “anti-stimulus” that could easily push our economy back into recession.

In addition, there’s a risk that we might default on the federal debt. I expect that Treasury will do everything it can to make debt-service payments on time, but there is a risk that it won’t succeed. Indeed, we have precedent for this. In 1979, Treasury accidentally defaulted on a small sliver of debt in the wake of a debt limit showdown. That default was narrow in scope, but financial markets reacted badly, and interest rates spiked. If a debt limit impasse forced Treasury to default today, the results would be more severe. Interest rates would spike, credit would tighten, financial institutions would scramble for cash, and savers might desert money market funds. Anyone who remembers the financial crisis should shudder at the prospect of reliving such disruptions.

Second, Treasury doesn’t have any “super-extraordinary” measures if the debt limit isn’t raised in time.

Pundits have suggested that Treasury might sidestep the debt limit by invoking the 14th Amendment, minting extremely large platinum coins, or selling gold and other federal assets. But Administration officials have said that none of those strategies would actually work.

Third, debt limit brinksmanship is costly, even if Congress raises the limit at the last minute.

As we saw in 2011, brinksmanship increases interest rates and federal borrowing costs. The Bipartisan Policy Center—building on work by the Government Accountability Office—estimates that crisis will cost taxpayers almost $19 billion in extra interest costs.

Brinksmanship also increases uncertainty, reduces confidence, and thus undermines the economy. In 2011, for example, consumer confidence and the stock market both plummeted, while measures of financial risk skyrocketed.

Finally, brinksmanship weakens America’s global image. The United States is the only major nation whose leaders talk openly about self-inflicted default. At the risk of sounding like Vladimir Putin, such exceptionalism is not healthy.

Fourth, as this Committee knows well, our economy remains fragile.

Now is not the time to hit it with unnecessary shocks.

Fifth, as the CBO confirmed yesterday, the long-run budget outlook remains challenging.

Deficits have fallen sharply in the past few years. But current budget policies would still create an unsustainable trajectory of debt in coming decades. Congress should address that problem. But the near-term fiscal priorities are funding the government and increasing the debt limit.

Finally, Congress should rethink the debt limit and the entire budget process.

Borrowing decisions cannot be made in a vacuum, separate from other fiscal choices. America borrows today because this and previous Congresses chose to spend more than we take in, sometimes with good reason, sometimes not. If Congress is concerned about debt, it needs to act when it makes those spending and revenue decisions, not months or years later when financial obligations are already in place. When the dust settles on our immediate challenges, Congress should re-examine the entire budget process, seeking ways to make it more effective and less susceptible to dangerous, after-the-fact brinksmanship.

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Want to buy a bitcoin?

If you click over to Mt. Gox, the most famous bitcoin exchange, one unit of the crypto-currency will set you back $145. But at Bitstamp you would pay only $129. (At time of writing; prices can change quickly.)

Mt. Gox traders are thus paying a 12% premium for their bitcoins.

That spread seems to violate a fundamental economic law. When transaction costs are low, identical items should trade at nearly identical prices. Otherwise, arbitrageurs would step in to buy cheap and sell dear until the price gap narrows.

But that isn’t happening.

The “law of one price” used to hold. Last fall and winter bitcoin prices at the two big exchanges typically differed by less than 2 percent, a reasonable range given exchange fees and the cost of money transfers (click here if you don’t see the chart or want it bigger):

Bitcoin Spread

In April, however, the bitcoin market went haywire. After spiking to $266 on Mt. Gox, bitcoin prices cratered, falling as low as $54 just two days later. That volatility created large, but temporary spreads between prices on different exchanges (and made it difficult to measure spreads accurately).

When conditions calmed, spreads returned to normal. And then Mt. Gox’s troubles began.

On May 14 the U.S. government accused the exchange of operating an illegal money service business. The government seized $5 million that Mt. Gox held at Dwolla (an online payment processor) and Wells Fargo.

Fearing for their money, Mt. Gox customers converted their at-risk dollars into easy-to-withdraw bitcoins, and the Mt. Gox-Bitstamp spread spiked to 5%.

Spreads briefly normalized until Mt. Gox announced that it was suspending U.S. dollar withdrawals. Mt. Gox had become a Roach Motel (or, if you prefer, a Hotel California) for U.S. dollars. Traders could check their dollars in, but they couldn’t check them out.

Customers responded as you would expect. The spread spiked to 6%, as Mt. Gox traders again converted dollars into bitcoins. The spread briefly narrowed after Mt. Gox’s July 4 announcement of resumed dollar withdrawals. But spreads then spiked to record levels once Mt. Gox customers started reporting that withdrawals remained slow or nonexistent.

Mt. Gox prices are higher than on Bitstamp today because customers apparently can’t get their dollars out of Mt. Gox. So they pay extra for bitcoins. For those customers, a Mt. Gox bitcoin is different from one anywhere else. So the Mt. Gox price isn’t a clean measure of a bitcoin’s value. Instead, it measures the value of a bitcoin plus the desperation of Mt. Gox’s customers.

But that still leaves a puzzle. It makes sense that customers will pay a premium to get their money out. But who is willing to take the other side of the trade, selling bitcoins in return for “Mt. Gox dollars”?

As best as I can tell, those traders have stayed silent on the bitcoin chat boards. Perhaps they are newcomers who think they’ve found an arbitrage opportunity and don’t realize their dollars will be hard to withdraw. Or perhaps they believe that Mt. Gox will get its act together. (A more sinister take, raised on the boards, is that some preferred traders do have the ability to withdraw.) Whatever the case, they stand to make a tidy profit if they can get their dollars out, and sorely disappointed if they can’t.

Sources: For a quick explanation of bitcoin, try this introduction. For price data from numerous exchanges, visit bitcoin charts. My chart uses a 7-day moving average of spreads to smooth the volatility. The measured spread has at times been much higher, e.g., 40%+ on April 10, but that passed quickly.

Disclosure: I own 0.1 bitcoin.

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James Bullard, head of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, gave a nice presentation on “The Tapering Debate” today. See the whole thing here.

One question he considers is whether the Fed balance sheet is getting scarily big. It’s certainly large by U.S. historical standards — the only time is was bigger, relative to the size of the economy, was in the 1940s.

By current international standards, however, the Fed balance sheet isn’t an outlier. In fact, Japan, Europe, and the United Kingdom all have larger central bank balance sheets, relative to their economies, than we do (FRB = Federal Reserve Bank):


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Is the Federal Reserve part of the government? You might think so, but you wouldn’t know it from the way we talk about America’s debt. When it comes to the debt held by the public, for example, the Fed is just a member of the public.

That accounting reflects the Fed’s unusual independence from the rest of government. The Fed remits its profits to the U.S. Treasury each year, but is otherwise ignored when thinking about fiscal policy.

In the era of quantitative easing, that accounting warrants a second look. The Fed now owns $2 trillion in Treasury bonds and $1.5 trillion in other financial assets. Those assets, and the way the Fed finances them, could have significant budget implications.

To understand them, we’ve calculated what the federal government’s debt and financial asset positions look like when you combine the regular government with the Federal Reserve, taking care to net out the debt owned by the Fed and Treasury cash deposited at the Fed:



This consolidated view offers five insights about America’s debt situation:

1.     Less long-term debt. The Fed has bought $2 trillion of Treasury debt with maturities of a year or more. As a result, $2 trillion of medium- and long-term public debt is not, in fact, held by the real public. Interest payments continue, but they cycle from the Treasury to the Fed and then back again when the Fed remits its profits to Treasury. (This debt would become fully public again if the Fed ever decides to sell or allows the debt to mature without replacing it.)

2.     More short-term debt. The Fed needs resources to buy longer-term Treasuries, mortgage-backed securities, and other financial assets. In the early days of the crisis response, it did so by selling the short-term Treasuries it owned. But those eventually ran out. So the Fed began financing its purchases by creating new bank reserves. Those reserves now account for $2 trillion of the Fed’s $2.3 trillion in short-term borrowing, on which it currently pays 0.25 percent interest.

3.     Slightly more overall debt. The official public debt currently stands at $11.9 trillion. When we add in the Fed, that figure rises to $12.1 trillion. Bank reserves and other short-term Fed borrowings more than offset the Fed’s portfolio of Treasury bonds.

4.     Lots more financial assets. Treasury’s financial assets now total $1.1 trillion. That figure more than doubles to $2.5 trillion when we add in the Fed’s mortgage-backed securities and other financial assets.

5.     Less debt net of financial assets. The Fed adds more in financial assets than in government debt, so the debt net of financial assets falls from $10.8 trillion to $9.6 trillion. That $1.2 trillion difference reflects the power of the printing press. As America’s monetary authority, the Fed has issued $1.2 trillion in circulating currency to help finance its portfolio. That currency is technically a government liability, but it bears no interest and imposes no fiscal burden.

The Fed thus strengthens the government’s net financial position, but increases the fiscal risk of future increases in interest rates. When the Fed buys Treasuries, for example, it replaces long-term debts with very short-term ones, bank deposits. That’s been a profitable trade in recent years, with short-term interest rates near zero. But it means federal coffers will be more exposed to future hikes in short-term interest rates, if and when they occur.

This post was coauthored by Hillel Kipnis, who is interning at the Urban Institute this summer. Earlier posts in this series include: Uncle Sam’s Growing Investment Portfolio and Uncle Sam’s Trillion-Dollar Portfolio Partly Offsets the Public Debt.

Sources: Monthly Statement of Public Debt, Federal Reserve’s Financial Accounts of the United States, and Federal Reserve’s Factors Affecting Reserve Balances.

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The Fed believes the stimulus from quantitative easing depends on the stock of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities that it owns, not on the flow of its purchases. If that view is correct, the future tapering of Fed purchases won’t be monetary tightening, it will a slowing pace of monetary easing (click for larger chart):

Tapering is not tightening

The chart shows a hypothetical trajectory for the Fed’s bond and MBS holdings. Under the stock view, that trajectory will go through three stages, paralleling those of traditional interest rate policy:

  • Quantitative easing: The Fed expands its balance sheet by buying Treasuries and MBS. Current pace: $85 billion each month.
  • Quantitative accommodation: The Fed maintains its balance sheet; it buys new assets to replace older ones as they mature.
  • Quantitative tightening: The Fed contracts its balance sheet by allowing assets to mature without replacement or, more aggressively, by selling them.

In this view, tapering is the final stage of quantitative easing. The Fed buys assets during tapering, but at a slower tempo. Tapering is not tightening.

That view is clear, logical, and elegant. But it utterly fails to explain why financial markets went haywire last week when Ben Bernanke and company talked about tapering.

One reason is investor expectations. The Fed has been trying to stimulate the economy not only through QE, but also by telling investors to expect easing in the future. Such forward guidance can be a powerful lever for monetary policy.

Tapering is tightening

Last week, investors learned that QE might end sooner than they expected. In the stock view with expectations, that is monetary tightening. As illustrated in the second chart, future Fed policy would be tighter than financial markets had previously thought.*

This view likely explains some of the market reaction to recent Fed statements. But it’s hard to reconcile the magnitude of the movements. Suppose markets expected tapering to begin in January and now think September more likely. All else equal, that four-month difference implies a $340 billion reduction in the Fed’s ultimate portfolio. That’s something, but could that alone explain the sharp market response?

My sense it that something else must be going on as well. Some candidates include:

  • Perhaps the flow of Fed purchases matters, not just the stock. This view appears much more common among traders than Fed economists. If anyone has a reference for a good articulation of this view, I’d love to see it. The flow shouldn’t matter in normal times—was the Fed tightening when the flow of purchases was essentially zero for decades before the recent crisis?—but these are hardly normal times. Perhaps the flow matters when you are at the zero lower bound?
  • Perhaps world financial markets expected a much longer period of QE and are highly geared to Fed policy. If I am reading it correctly, that’s the view of Vince Foster who discusses the unwinding of the carry trade (ht Tyler Cowen)

* This definition of tightening compares the new expected trajectory of Fed holdings to prior expectations. Such comparisons are relative; in principle, one could equally say that the Fed announcement indicated that future policy would be less loose, not that it would be tighter. But for most purposes, it seems simpler just to say that future policy has gotten tighter. The same semantic issue exists in fiscal policy. If Medicare spending is scheduled to grow $35 billion next year, what do we call a proposal under which spending increases $30 billion? We usually call that a $5 billion spending cut since it’s a decline relative to an accepted baseline. But we should remember that Medicare spending is growing. The same seems true with early tapering. Tightening seems the cleanest description for most purposes, even though in absolute terms it is slower easing.

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