When states don’t pay their debts

By Felix Salmon
June 17, 2010
Greg Ip reports on how Illinois is going to have to start making unnecessary unemployment payments just because it's refusing to pay its debts:

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Greg Ip reports on how Illinois is going to have to start making unnecessary unemployment payments just because it’s refusing to pay its debts:

Illinois owes Shore Community Services, a non-profit agency in suburban Chicago, some $1.6m for services to the mentally disabled. The agency has had to lay off a dozen staff. Jerry Gulley, the executive director, says his outfit’s line of credit could be exhausted soon. The bank will not accept the state’s IOUs as collateral. “That’s how sad it is,” shrugs Mr Gulley.

Ip explained to me that these aren’t physical IOUs, like California issued, and they’re certainly not bonds — they’re just unpaid receivables. But even so, this is crazy: there’s no way that Illinois should allow the employees of a noble non-profit to be laid off just because it hasn’t got around to paying its bills. It’s the job of the state to encourage employment, not layoffs.

Other banks are reportedly accepting state receivables as collateral, but it seems to me that Illinois would do well to set up a formal system of paper IOUs, which would presumably be much easier to borrow against. More generally, I think that there’s a very good chance we’re going to see quite a lot of state-issued scrip in the years to come, not only from Illinois but also from other states with similar CDS spreads, like Portugal. As Ip notes, these states “do not issue their own currency, so inflating away their debt is not an option”. But issuing scrip is the next best thing.

The problem with states like Illinois, California, and New York is not the willingness of the executive branch to remain current on its debts; rather, it’s the ability of the legislative branch to make the kind of tough fiscal decisions which are politically dangerous. The more dysfunctional the state legislature — and all three of them are pretty gruesome in that regard — the more likely it is that the state treasury will find itself in a position of simply not being able to meet its contractual obligations as they come due.

Outright default on a state’s bonded debt is still unlikely:

The assumption of many investors is that the federal government would never let a state default. It might allow an isolated case, but if a default looked like the start of a wave, the federal government would surely blink—just as Europe did when confronted by Greece.

This is surely right, and I doubt that any state is going to attempt to pay its bond coupons in scrip. Everything else, however, is fair game — including payments for services to the mentally disabled.

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