Can Treasury just go overdrawn at the Fed?

By Felix Salmon
July 27, 2011

John Carney has an intriguing post today: what if, in the short to medium term, the debt ceiling really doesn’t matter at all?

This is nothing to do with the 14th Amendment or with coin seignorage — this is just the simple mechanics of bank accounts. Treasury has an account at the Fed; at last count it was in credit to the tune of roughly $77 billion. Money’s coming in; money’s going out. Come August 2, it’ll be down to zero. But hey, zero’s just a number. We’ve all gone overdrawn at our bank at some time or another: why should Treasury be any exception?

The idea here is that after August 2, Treasury can simply carry on with business as usual. Money will come in to its bank account; money will go out. And the balance will dip below zero: Treasury will have an overdraft at the Fed. You think the Fed’s going to bounce Treasury’s checks?

The question is whether the overdraft counts as national debt for the purposes of calculating the debt ceiling. And Carney thinks there’s a good case to be made that it doesn’t:

The debt ceiling applies to the face amount of obligations issued under Chapter 31 of Title 31 of the U.S. Code—basically, Treasury notes and bills and the other standard kinds of government debt—and the “face amount of obligations whose principal and interest are guaranteed by the United States Government.” But overdrafts on the Federal Reserve wouldn’t be Treasurys and they aren’t explicitly guaranteed by the U.S. government.

There’s no reason why this state of affairs couldn’t continue for months. Treasury would continue to spend money, as instructed by Congress in the budget, and Treasury’s overdraft at the Fed would continue to rise. The Fed, for its part, would have two choices when it came to cashing Treasury’s checks: it could either simply print the money, or else it could sell some of its assets — it owns $1.6 trillion in Treasury bonds — and use those proceeds instead. Either way, any bank presenting a check from Treasury could cash it, no problem.

This seems to me by far the most elegant solution to the debt-ceiling problem, should Congress not get its act together by August 2. Treasury just keeps on spending, and the Fed would of course continue to honor the checks: failure to do so would trigger a massive recession and directly violate its full-employment mandate, for starters. There would be people saying that the Fed overdraft should by rights be included in the total national debt, but they would have no particular standing to try to get that point of view enforced by a court of law.

And of course if Treasury has a back-up overdraft facility at the Fed, that would only serve to shore up — rather than endanger — its precious triple-A credit rating.

So, have at it, people. Why isn’t this the first best solution to the debt-ceiling problem, should we find ourselves in that dreadful situation?

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