The US won’t default, even if the debt ceiling stays

By Felix Salmon
January 13, 2011
Greg Ip makes a very important point today, which I haven't seen made anywhere else: even if the US debt ceiling isn't lifted, that doesn't mean the government will default.

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Greg Ip makes a very important point today, which I haven’t seen made anywhere else*: even if the US debt ceiling isn’t lifted, that doesn’t mean the government will default.

In any given month, the government’s income dwarfs its debt-service obligations, which means that the government could simply pay all interest on Treasury bonds out of its cashflow. Greg hasn’t run the numbers on principal maturities, but I’m pretty sure that they too could be covered out of cash receipts—and when that happened, of course, the total debt outstanding would go down, and we wouldn’t be bumping up against the ceiling any more.

The point here is that the government has enormous expenditures every month, and debt service constitutes an important yet small part of them. If the debt ceiling weren’t raised, it stands to reason that just about any other form of government spending would get cut before Tim Geithner dreamed of defaulting on risk-free bonds.

Some of those spending cuts could be implemented almost invisibly. For instance, Social Security runs a surplus for the time being; it invests that money in special non-marketable Treasury securities, which count as Treasury debt. If the Social Security trust fund accepted instead just some kind of promise of a top-up at a later date, that could save billions of dollars right there.

Beyond that, large defense contractors aren’t going to stop working for the government just because they’re late in being paid; neither are doctors, hospitals or most of the rest of the healthcare industry.

But maybe the smartest thing for Geithner to do would simply be to stop paying the salaries of members of Congress and their staffs. It probably wouldn’t take long, in that event, for Congress to vote Obama the debt-ceiling raise he needs.

The bigger picture here is that the US government, like any other company or individual, has enormous freedom when it comes to which creditors it chooses to pay when. Just like GM had every right to privilege some creditors over others, even when those creditors were legally pari passu, the US government can do exactly the same thing. And there’s no way that this administration, or any other that I can think of, would choose to cut debt service given that they have every choice in the matter.

*Update: Which doesn’t mean the point wasn’t made earlier elsewhere, of course. Stan Collender made it in his Roll Call column, which he posted on his blog here. Apologies, Stan, for missing it.

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