Spain’s 1575 Default

If all goes according to plan, the hoopla over the debt limit will soon recede. Policymakers and analysts will move on to the next new thing. And, sadly, some fascinating questions will forever go unanswered. For example, which president would appear on the trillion-dollar coin?

 But if you are up for one last article about default, yesterday’s piece by Christophe Chamley at Bloomberg is a good one (ht: Donald M.). Chamley recounts Spain’s intentional bond default way back in 1575:

Spain, at the time, was the world’s sole superpower. Contemporaries described it as an empire “over which the sun never sets.” Yet the king needed the cities’ consent to borrow at a reasonable rate. And he needed it for a reason: The cities collected the taxes.

Each of the 18 main cities of Castile levied a special tax earmarked for long-term debt service. The level of this tax was set every six years through negotiation with the king. Tax collections were used first to pay off local long-term bondholders, with the rest sent to the central government. The local long-term bondholders were, in large part, the elderly living in the area. So local taxpayers realized that if they didn’t pay, their parents would be hurt. Thus, this precursor to Social Security had an effective enforcement mechanism — the ire of the elders.

But the king could only exploit this confluence of interests so far. The Cortes set the earmarked tax rate by majority rule, and that limited the king’s issuance of what were, in effect, his AAA securities. The king also issued other bonds secured by other, non-earmarked revenue. These securities were of a lower grade and sold at lower price.

Thanks to Philip’s expensive military adventures in the Netherlands and the Mediterranean, Spain’s debt had reached half of gross domestic product by 1573. At that point, the cities balked at paying higher taxes. For the next two years, they refused to budge in their confrontation with the king.

Finally, in September 1575, Philip took a circuitous route to outmaneuver the Cortes. He suspended payments not on the long-term debt, but on the short-term debt, which was owed primarily to Genoese bankers. The people cheered. Resentment against bankers ran as high then as now — perhaps higher, because the bankers were foreigners. The upshot, however, was default and a full-blown credit crisis.

 And then what? Well, as Chamley recounts, it wasn’t pretty.

Let’s Eliminate the Debt Limit

My latest column at the Christian Science Monitor:

America’s leaders need to get to yes on a budget deal – one that marries substantial deficit cuts with a much-needed increase in the debt limit.

But that’s not enough. Rather than merely increasing the debt limit, we should eliminate it.

I realize that sounds strange. With all the Sturm und Drang in the budget talks, you might think that the debt limit is essential to controlling Washington’s profligate ways. It’s not.

Washington has other tools for managing its finances. The annual budget process includes a series of steps by which Congress decides how much to spend and to collect in taxes. Those decisions determine the size of America’s deficits and debt.

That simple fact often gets lost in the debate, so let me say it again: When Congress decides how much to spend and how much to tax, it is also deciding how much to borrow.

Unfortunately, the debt limit allows lawmakers to pretend that they can separate the two. Members routinely try to wrap themselves in the flag of fiscal responsibility by voting against debt limit increases. In most cases, though, those members have also voted for spending and tax policies that make those debt increases necessary.

Votes on the debt limit thus usually reflect raw politics, not substantive policy differences. Everyone knows that the debt limit has to rise. But they also know that voters hate debt. So law-makers jockey to see who can win the right to vote no and who must bear the burden of voting yes.

Democrats opposed debt limit increases when President George W. Bush was in office and Republicans controlled Congress. Republicans returned the favor under President Obama and the Democratic Congress. The only times we’ve seen hints of bipartisanship are when, as now, divided government has placed some responsibility on both parties.

A larger problem is that the debt limit institutionalizes risky brinkmanship. In divided government, both parties must agree to raise the debt limit. If they don’t, the United States can’t pay all its bills. We might even default on our debt. That’s the economic equivalent of driving over a cliff.

Both sides would regret that outcome. But they face very different incentives. The party that holds the White House has to make sure that the government functions. That’s why Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has repeatedly warned Congress about the damage that would result if the debt limit isn’t raised in time.

But the opposing party wants to extract the highest possible price for agreeing to more debt. So they have to act as though hitting the limit is no big deal. That’s why many Republicans have been discussing the potential to prioritize payments (putting interest first), and some have flirted with endorsing temporary default.

The problem with that strategy is that negotiations can fail, prioritization might not work, or we might be surprised with a sudden need for funds. In short, we might accidentally go over the brink.

Even if we don’t, dancing on the edge is costly. Alone among major nations, the US talks openly about the possibility of default. Financial markets usually discount that rhetoric as mere politics. As the deadline nears, however, that rhetoric will sow doubt in financial markets, inspire warning shots from credit-rating agencies, and potentially increase our borrowing costs.

There’s no reason to subject ourselves to those needless costs. The debt limit is an anachronism. Congress should eliminate it.

P.S. In conjunction with the eliminating the debt limit, I would strengthen the existing budget process along the line the Bipartisan Policy Center’s SAVEGO proposal. We do need budget procedures to force action, just not the brinkmanship of the debt limit.

P.P.S. Reuters reports that Moody’s is also recommending the elimination of the debt limit.

Spending in Disguise

Republicans are demanding a deficit-reduction package that’s entirely spending cuts. Democrats insist that revenues must also be included.

Are these positions completely irreconcilable? Not if both sides are willing to attack the spending hidden in our tax code.

I explore this idea for finding common ground in a new essay in National Affairs, “Spending in Disguise”:

A great deal of government spending is hidden in the federal tax code in the form of deductions, credits, and other preferences that seem like they let taxpayers keep their own money but are actually spending in disguise. Those preferences complicate the code and often needlessly distort family and business decisions. Their magnitude raises the possibility of a dramatic reform of the tax code—making it simpler, fairer, and more pro-growth—that would amount to both cutting spending and increasing government revenue at once, and without raising tax rates. 

Such a reform would not eliminate the need for serious spending cuts, of course, nor would it take tax increases off the table. But it could dramatically improve the government’s fiscal outlook and make the task of budget negotiators far easier. It will only be possible, however, if we clearly understand how spending is hidden in the tax code and what reformers might do about it—if we see that tax policy and spending policy are not always as distinct as we might think.

In short, there is a deal to be done in which revenues go up solely because spending in the tax code goes down.

The trillion-dollar question is whether President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Leader Reid can cut that deal by August 2nd. If not, one side will have to cave on a core principle (no prize for guessing which party that’s likely to be), or we will find out just how painful it really is to run out of fresh borrowing room.

Playing with Fire with the Debt Limit

My latest column in the Christian Science Monitor:

America sometimes takes its exceptionalism too far.

Case in point: We are the only major economy that talks openly of default.

Government debt has ballooned throughout the developed world in the aftermath of the Great Recession. France and Britain are as deep in debt as the United States, for example, and Japan is much further in the hole.

But their leaders never mention the possibility of default. Why would they? If you have the ability to pay your bills, there’s no reason to scare your creditors.

But that’s exactly what we do in America. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been warning about the risks of default since January.

If we don’t increase the debt limit by early August, he tells us, default becomes a real possibility. And that could pose grievous risks to our already weak economy.

Many Republicans play down that risk. Echoing famed investor Stanley Druckenmiller, some argue that a temporary default would be acceptable if it’s part of a larger political strategy that brings future deficits under control.

But that is a dangerous game.

Large swaths of America’s financial infrastructure have been built on the assumption that US Treasuries pay on time. And financial markets would likely punish the US with higher interest rates if we defaulted. That’s what happened in 1979, for example, when back office snafus caused Treasury to unintentionally miss payments to some investors.

This time, Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poors are threatening to cut the US credit rating if we choose to default. Given the risks, most observers recognize that default is not, and should not be, an option. The US is not a deadbeat nation.

But does that mean the debt limit has to go up in early August? Some Republicans say no because of a simple fact: Every month, the federal government collects more in taxes than it pays in interest. With careful cash management (which would likely have to start before the August deadline), Mr. Geithner should be able to prioritize debt payments and thus avoid debt default.

As best as I can tell, that argument is correct, but it’s hardly a reason for complacency. America is currently spending about $100 billion more each month than it collects in revenues. If we hit the debt limit, we won’t be able to pay everyone who is rightly expecting to be paid.

Geithner can and should ensure that our debtholders get paid.

But someone – perhaps millions of someones – won’t be paid on time. Contractors, federal workers, program beneficiaries, or state and local governments will suddenly find themselves short on their cash flow.

That won’t be good for the economy. Even though it’s not as bad as debt default, it still would paint the US as a deadbeat.

The US faces severe fiscal challenges in the years ahead. It’s perfectly reasonable that lawmakers want to combine an increase in the debt limit with efforts to rein in future deficits.

But that worthy goal should not weaken our commitment to paying – on time and in full – the obligations that we have already incurred.

As the debt limit draws near, our leaders should stop playing with fire and craft instead a plan to rein in future deficits without threatening our struggling recovery.

That’s a difficult balancing act, requiring tough compromises across the political spectrum. But as everybody knows on Capitol Hill and beyond, it would be the best step for the nation and our fragile economy.

It would also be exceptional.

The Day the United States Defaulted on Treasury Bills

In October 2013, a slightly updated version of this post appeared here.

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 ongoing debt limit slowdown.

There’s just one teensy problem: it isn’t true. As Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal recently noted, the United States defaulted on some Treasury bills in 1979. 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.

This default was, of course, 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.

Some may quibble about whether this constitutes default. After all, the United States did eventually make its payments. And the disruption applied to only a sliver of its debt – certain T-bills owned by individual investors.

But I think it’s unambiguous. A debt default occurs anytime a creditor fails to make a timely interest or principal payment. By that standard, the United States did default. 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:

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 caused rates to fall and then rise 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 temporary default is a bad idea.

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 at the New York Times and the associated comments.