The Great Debate UK

U.S. debt downgrade: Who cares?

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

As I write this blog, it looks as though the U.S. Congress is going to pass a bill raising the debt ceiling and making modest cuts in Federal Government spending over the coming years. Although it is, quite rightly, being presented as a somewhat hollow victory for the forces of reason, there is one extremely puzzling aspect of the crisis.

It is being reported on all sides that the credit rating agencies may well downgrade U.S. sovereign debt in spite of this “happy ending” – indeed, Egan-Jones, one of the smaller agencies, cut its rating of U.S. debt some weeks ago, and there is much talk of Moody’s and S&P following suit in the very near future.

This is all rather puzzling. After all, a credit rating is an assessment of how reliably lenders can count on the borrowers repaying their dollar loans (principal plus interest) in full and on time.  Now the only scenario I can imagine in which the U.S. Treasury fails to meet its legal obligations to its creditors is one in which the Congress blocks a rise in the debt ceiling explicitly so as to bring about a default – and even then it would presumably require the collaboration of the executive because, as many people have pointed out in the current cliffhanger, even if further borrowing is impossible, U.S. tax revenues are far greater than the cost of servicing the debt.

In other words, the Administration can always pay its legal debts – it is only about to run out of money on August 2nd, in the sense that tax revenues are insufficient to cover legally required payments to Uncle Sam’s creditors plus hundreds of billions of dollars of other commitments which the federal Government is politically (and no doubt to a great extent morally), but not legally bound to pay, such as: social security payments, purchases (unless already ordered), wages to civil servants without contract, and so on and so forth. It can delay most of those payments without contravening criminal or civil law, and in most cases can walk away from its commitments altogether with no legal penalty, though of course the outcome might be politically or socially explosive.

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