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Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The Fed on "Possible Macroeconomic Effects of a Temporary Federal Debt Default"

by Calculated Risk on 4/19/2023 09:19:00 AM

This is relevant today.

From Federal Reserve Staff in 2013 on the debt ceiling debate: Possible Macroeconomic Effects of a Temporary Federal Debt Default. Excerpts:

Key considerations in evaluating the consequences of a debt default

Such an event would be unprecedented. Although other countries have defaulted on their sovereign debt, these defaults occurred in situations where the government could not feasibly continue to service its debt. Failure to raise the U.S. federal debt ceiling, in contrast, would be a voluntary decision to stop meeting the government’s obligations even though it has no problems doing so. In addition, no other nation that defaulted on its sovereign debt ever enjoyed two key features of the U.S. economy—Treasury securities are the world’s “safe” asset and the dollar is the world’s main reserve currency. For these reasons, we have essentially no historical experience to help us predict the likely consequences of a failure by the Congress and the Administration to raise the debt ceiling.

The financial market effects of a debt default would be highly uncertain, both because of its unprecedented nature, and because (as events in recent years have illustrated) we have only a limited understanding of the dynamics of the financial system when hit with a major shock.

o Yields on Treasury securities could rise noticeably, even if the default lasted only a day or two. And if the debt limit impasse dragged on for weeks, it could conceivably lead investors to demand a premium similar to that paid on AAA corporate bonds.

o Given that Treasury yields serve as a benchmark rate for the pricing of other securities, and given that a prolonged stand-off would probably make the general economic outlook much more uncertain, private interest rates could rise sharply. Rising interest rates and risk premiums would in turn push stock prices down appreciably.

o In some extreme scenarios with a prolonged default, financial markets could be severely impaired. For example, the functioning of the repo market could be compromised and some money market mutual funds could experience liquidity pressures.

o A debt default could also have some international repercussions. For example, a prolonged default might increase the reluctance of investors to hold Treasury securities and perhaps dollar-denominated assets more generally. Although the resulting rebalancing in portfolios might be relatively gradual, it could lead to a decline in the dollar over time (although a sudden drop could not be ruled out) and a higher “country-risk” premium on all U.S. assets.

• A debt default would also adversely affect the economy through its direct effects on aggregate income flows and government operations if the impasse in raising the debt limit lasted for several weeks.

o Currently, an extremely large portion of federal government spending is funded through borrowing (in part because tax payments are concentrated in other months). From mid-October through mid-November, for example, only 65 percent of projected spending would be covered by revenues. Thus, 35 percent of government cash outlays would need to be cut if a debt limit accord was not reached until the middle of November.

o Assuming that the Treasury prioritizes its payments to cover all scheduled net interest payments, other federal spending would be temporarily reduced by the following amounts (expressed in nominal terms at an annual rate): $340 billion in nominal federal purchases; $630 billion in Social Security, Medicare, and other transfer payments; and $150 billion in grants to state and local governments.
emphasis added
Usually the debt ceiling (I prefer "default ceiling") is raised with a clean bill. It is up to Congress. As Senator Mitch McConnell noted in 2011, if the debt ceiling isn't raised the "Republican brand" would become toxic and synonymous with fiscal irresponsibility.