GM debt has been through a lot of late. In May 2009, car czar Steve Rattner made a bold and unexpected decision to nationalize the company rather than leave it with debt outstanding. That decision was followed by a CDS auction which valued GM’s defaulted debt at just 12.5 cents on the dollar — a valuation unthinkably low just a couple of years earlier. Clearly, when it comes to automaker debt, there’s a lot of uncertainty and volatility — and where there’s debt with uncertainty and volatility, there’s sure to be CDS trading.
Four years ago, I started pushing back against the idea that whenever the government fails to make good on some obligation or other, that’s exactly the same thing as a bond default. Of course it isn’t: bond payments are a very special form of government obligation, involving specific sums of money to be paid in a specific manner on specific days. If you fail to make such payments, you’re in default. If a government takes money from, say, the military-salaries pot and uses it to make its bond payments, then that’s a drastic way of avoiding default. It’s a broken promise, to the servicemembers in question. But it’s not a default.
After I blogged Greg Ip’s post on the dangers of a US debt default if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, it became clear that we were very much lacking an expert take on the matter. So I asked James Macdonald, author of my favorite book about sovereign debt, if he might weigh in. Here’s what he replied:
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.
Back in April, I noted with respect to Greece that “the bear case is terrifying, and the bull case is very hard to articulate”. So it’s extremely useful to have a clearly-articulated paper from the IMF, entitled “Default in Today’s Advanced Economies: Unnecessary, Undesirable, and Unlikely”, which puts the bull case much more vividly than I’ve seen it before.
The Daily Beast kicked off this week’s offerings with a slideshow listing “20 Recession-Proof Cities”: the ones with high pay and sustained economic growth. I’m not entirely clear on how to link to any given city on the list, but if you click through you’ll find Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at #7, the very picture of a hale urban center.