Should states be able to go bankrupt?

By Felix Salmon
December 7, 2010

Jimmy P has discovered a secret GOP plan to push states to declare bankruptcy in order to avoid bailing them out. Like most secret plans, it was splashed all over the Weekly Standard in a piece by David Skeel, and it does make a certain brutal sense:

Although bankruptcy would be an imperfect solution to out-of-control state deficits, it’s the best option we have, at least if we want to have any chance of avoiding massive federal bailouts of state governments…

The effectiveness of state bankruptcy would depend a great deal on the state’s willingness to play hardball with its creditors. The principal candidates for restructuring in states like California or Illinois are the state’s bonds and its contracts with public employees. Ideally, bondholders would vote to approve a restructuring. But if they dug in their heels and resisted proposals to restructure their debt, a bankruptcy chapter for states should allow (as municipal bankruptcy already does) for a proposal to be “crammed down” over their objections under certain circumstances.

Skeel doesn’t mention the single biggest problem with this idea. If it were implemented, or if it even looked like it might get implemented, prices of municipal bonds would plunge, and most states would find it pretty much impossible to borrow money. As such, facing a massive and immediate liquidity crisis, they would be in more need of a federal bailout than before the bankruptcy legislation was seriously mooted.

The fact is that there’s only one reason to invent a Chapter 8 bankruptcy provision for states—and that’s to come up with an efficient and legal way to impose losses on bondholders and other creditors. (Chapter 9, which applies to cities and other municipal entities, doesn’t apply to states.) The creditors, fully aware of this, would immediately cease lending, certainly to the rockier states like California, Illinois, and New York. That’s not what we want. As a result, unless or until those states can bring their budgets into a primary surplus, introducing such a provision would certainly do more harm than good. And if those states can bring their budgets into a primary surplus, then we don’t need the bankruptcy provision, since they’ll be easily capable of rolling over their debts.

If the states had a bankruptcy provision all along, then I’m sure some people would be thinking seriously about whether it made sense for one or more states to file. But they don’t, and there’s basically no way of getting there from here. As such, the idea’s a non-starter.

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