Posts Tagged ‘fiscal cliff’

The only downgrade that matters

22 December 2012

Remember these words: “means of extinguishment.” The full quote is “The creation of debt should always be accompanied with the means of extinguishment,” and it’s from Alexander Hamilton, the father of our national debt. Hamilton believed that the federal government could do the nation a big favor by carrying a debt as long as it had sufficient revenue streams to eventually pay it off; such an arrangement, he said, would give the US “immortal credit,” which could come in very handy whenever we had pressing needs or good public investment opportunities that justified borrowing more money.

This has been on my mind because the (yawn) “fiscal cliff” negotiations, whatever their outcome, are really just the latest round in an endless series of self-destructive battles over whether to honor our own budget commitments by raising the debt ceiling so that we can pay for them. I’ve written about Congress’s debt-ceiling looniness before, and how it would be better not to have such votes at all. Think the proposed budget has too big a deficit? Fine, then don’t vote for it. But to vote for it and then refuse to pay for it is not only cynical and hypocritical, but sows suspicion that the government is a deadbeat.

Standard & Poor’s (S&P) famously downgraded the federal government’s debt in August 2011 (from AAA to AA+), and the other two major bond rating agencies (Moody’s, Fitch) are threatening to do the same if Congress can’t reach some kind of agreement to reduce the debt/GDP ratio in the long term. After the subprime scandal, in which the rating agencies routinely rubber-stamped dodgy subprime mortgage-backed securities as AAA, these agencies have zero credibility, but that doesn’t mean they’re always wrong. The S&P said its downgrade “was pretty much motivated by all of the debate about the raising of the debt ceiling. . . . It involved a level of brinksmanship greater than what we had expected earlier in the year.” Yes — if Congress can’t be counted upon to honor its own commitments, which include paying back the principal and interest on previously issued Treasury bonds, then why should bond buyers regard Treasury bonds as completely safe? The more Congress continues to play these games, the more rational it is to conclude that maybe Treasury bonds are not so safe. (more…)

Cliff note

2 December 2012

Recently I was asked to write a blurb about the omnipresent “fiscal cliff,” and here it is:

“Fiscal cliff” is a good metaphor. Like a real cliff, it’s something you shouldn’t jump off and really shouldn’t even be standing near. Austerity policies like big tax increases and spending cuts would only make a weak economy worse. While we do need to reduce our deficit and debt relative to the size of the economy, this is a long-term problem that needs to be tackled when the economy is back to normal.* In the short term, the goal should be to avoid pushing the economy back into recession. Similarly, we should avoid needlessly rattling financial markets by threatening to jump off fiscal cliffs, shut down the government, or not raise the debt ceiling. Some say the fiscal-cliff threat is needed to prod Congress into reaching a long-term, balanced deficit-reduction deal; but it’s a dangerous game, especially if the deficit cutting starts too soon, like now.

* OK, I’d amend that to say that it’s fine and dandy for Congress to tackle our long-term fiscal shortfall now, as long as they can agree that to start chopping after, not during, the long slump we’re in now. It would be lovely if the House, Senate, and President could agree on a Grand Bargain of sensible tax increases, meaningful reductions in medical costs (the biggest driver of spending increases), and various spending cuts, to take effect once the unemployment rate is back down to 6% or so, but it just ain’t gonna happen, not with a Congress that just came off its most unproductive session in decades.

The logic of the fiscal-cliff threat was that Congress won’t act on the deficit unless the alternative is calamity. While I tend to agree with that, it’s not logical when Congress is threatening itself with calamity. It’s an empty threat, like saying that if I can’t lose thirty pounds by diet and exercise then I’ll amputate my own limbs. When the time comes, we’ll both realize it was just a stupid bluff. I’ll put down my axe and Congress will punt the decision into a later month or year. Remember, that’s how we got to the current fiscal-cliff deadline, after the debt-ceiling debacle of summer 2011.

I honestly don’t expect Congress to take serious action on the debt until and unless the bond market’s longtime love for US Treasury bonds turns to hate, a la Greece. I could be wrong — it looked pretty hopeless in the early 1990s, too, and yet we ended the decade with the budget in surplus. But both the budget and the economy are in bigger holes now.