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Archive for the ‘Standard & Poor’s USA Downgrade’ Category

Long-Term Downgrade for a Short-Term “Problem”?

In Debt Ceiling, Economy, Federal Deficit, Standard & Poor's USA Downgrade on August 9, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Eugene Robinson happens to be one of my favorite liberal columnists because he writes with flair and tends to be ideologically consistent.  Whereas many writers are predictably partisan hacks, Mr. Robinson is willing to take on President Obama and the Democrat Party when he believes they are wrong. 

I take exception, however, with two points in today’s column. [1]   

Mr. Robinson says the downgrade has Republican “footprints” because he thinks S&P is afraid the GOP will force a default.  He says, “This isn’t the rationale that S&P gave, but it’s the only one that makes sense”.  Many on the Left are trying to blame the downgrade not on the party in power but on Republicans (see: https://econscius.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/jay-carneys-4-trillion-lie/).  Never mind S&P’s own words about the growing debt or their repeated warnings in recent years, warnings issued before there even was a Tea Party (see https://econscius.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/us-aaa-credit-rating-downgrade-was-expected/).

If Mr. Robinson believes S&P based – or should have based – its decision not on the growing US debt but on a near-term Republican “threat” to default, then why downgrade the long-term debt to “AA+” and keep the short-term debt at “AAA”?  Isn’t it the shorter term debt supposedly at risk of Eric Cantor?  Why worry about the 30 year T-bond and not the one year T-bill?  Mr. Robinson quotes S&P, “A new political consensus might (or might not) emerge after the 2012 elections.”  True; so why worry more about who will be in Congress 20 or 30 years from now?  

We do not know how fast the deficit will grow; we might bump up against the Debt Ceiling faster than expected, possibly before the 2012 elections if the economy dips into another recession.  Many financial commentators are predicting a new recession. [2] [3]   S&P specifically says, “we believe [the Debt Ceiling] act provides sufficient clarity to allow us to evaluate the likely course of US fiscal policy for the next few years.” [4]   The short-term “AAA” rating was affirmed even with John Boehner on the loose in the Capitol?  Wow.

Secondly, Mr. Robinson disputes the merit of any downgrade, saying:

“There is no plausible scenario under which the United States would be unable to service its debt. If political gridlock were to persist, our government would be able to pay bondholders with a combination of tax revenues and funds raised by selling more Treasury bills. And in the final analysis, as Alan Greenspan noted Sunday on “Meet the Press,” the United States “can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that.” [1]

Yes, it is true the US can pay bonds out of current tax receipts or just “print money”. [5]  But there is a massive risk to printing money.  Firing up the government printing press debases the currency a la Weimar Germany.  

Running the printing press would be a short-term solution.  US government debt is a series of hundreds of outstanding debt issues.  Approximately every week, a series of Treasury debt matures and needs to be replaced with a new issue.  Treasury bills mature in less than one year. [6]  As of 7/31/11, the public held $1.5 Trillion of T-bills. [7]  All mature in the next 12 months and needs to be rolled over into new Treasury debts.  Other, older series of Treasury notes and long-term Treasury bonds mature regularly throughout each year, too.  For example, 30 year Treasury bonds issued in fall 1981 mature in coming months. 

If the US government decided to inflate away debt obligations by printing money, the US Dollar would decline in value.   That would lose investor confidence.  This would precipitate a crisis:  investors would soon enough refuse to buy new issues of Treasury debt at anything like current low rates, if at all.  Imagine yourself as China, lending to the US in the expectation of receiving US Dollars for your debt upon maturity.  If your interest and principal started being paid with rapidly depreciating Dollars created out of thin air, would you want to keep lending?  You’d demand higher interest rates, if you lent at all.  Alternatively, you might be willing to lend, but only in bonds denominated in Chinese Yuan.  You know the US government cannot inflate the Yuan, because the US printing press cannot print Yuan.  Amusing as it would be, I cannot picture Timothy Geithner changing out the US Mint’s printing blocks with Chinese characters.

Running the printing press is not a feasible bond payment option. 

[1] http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/08/09/a_downgrades_gop_fingerprints_110861.html

[2] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/get-ready-for-great-recession-20-2011-08-08?link=home_carousel

[3] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-to-brace-your-portfolio-for-another-recession-2011-08-05?link=kiosk

[4] http://www.standardandpoors.com/servlet/BlobServer?blobheadername3=MDT-Type&blobcol=urldata&blobtable=MungoBlobs&blobheadervalue2=inline%3B+filename%3DUS_Downgraded_AA%2B.pdf&blobheadername2=Content-Disposition&blobheadervalue1=application%2Fpdf&blobkey=id&blobheadername1=content-type&blobwhere=1243942957443&blobheadervalue3=UTF-8

[5] Note that Mr. Robinson is actually stating one reason a “default” was unlikely no matter what happened in the recent Debt Ceiling controversy:  the government could have paid bond interest first out of tax revenues.  

[6] T-bills mature in less than one year.  Notes mature in 1-10 years and T-bonds mature in more than 10 years.

[7] http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/mspd/2011/opds072011.pdf

Picture from Wikipedia commons.

Paul Krugman, Can You Spare the Chutzpah?

In American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (Stimulus), Federal Deficit, Government Spending, Obama Administration, Standard & Poor's USA Downgrade on August 8, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Paul Krugman today mocks Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the United States credit rating and accesses blame for the rating cut. [1]   Mr. Krugman says, “And please, let’s not have the usual declarations that both sides are at fault.  Our problems are almost entirely one-sided.” 

I held my breath a moment… wouldn’t this be the perfect place for Mr. Krugman to own up to his long advocacy of even larger deficit spending?  Alas, there’s no humility from Mr. Krugman, only chutzpah. [2]

Mr. Krugman predictably blames the “extremist right” and goes about making light of S&P.  Apparently it was the “extremist right” that demanded a trillion-dollar Stimulus program, Obama’s payroll tax cuts and the creation and continuous expansion of myriad other government spending programs the past 70 years?  Even the most cursory look at the history of the Public Debt shows neither party is blameless, but Mr. Krugman is too partisan.

Be that as it may, it is true S&P was too generous with ratings in the run-up to the financial crisis of 2008 and there is an argument S&P was late to drop the USA’s rating in 2011.  But Mr. Krugman shows chutzpah in making light of the rating drop to “AA-“.  I assume Mr. Krugman understands what rating systems are all about.  The top rating of “AAA” is intended for only the most pristine credits.  “AA+” is a good rating, just not as good as “AAA”.  The USA would have to drop another nine notches to “BB+” to be in speculative (so-called “junk”) territory.  The ratings scale works down to “C” and “D” (default).   Any honest person will admit the financial position of the United States has weakened and the country is not as creditworthy as it once was.  An “AA+” credit is still expected to repay the debt but is a bit riskier than an “AAA” credit.

Mr. Krugman is intelligent but occasionally careless.  Consider his statement: “It’s true that we’re building up debt, on which we’ll eventually have to pay interest.”  Eventually?  While rates are low today, we are paying plenty of interest.   US government interest expense was $414 billion in Fiscal 2010. [3]  Then again, this is the same Paul Krugman who also writes of “a trillion here or a trillion there” like a trillion is inconsequential.  In the rarefied spending air of a massive deficit advocate like Mr. Krugman, perhaps $414 billion is hardly anything at all.  After all, it rounds down to $0 Trillion.

Mr. Krugman said the 2009 Stimulus program was too small and he actually criticized the Obama Administration for its supposedly punctilious policies.  In his own words:

“The good news is that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a k a the Obama stimulus plan, is working just about the way textbook macroeconomics said it would …  The truth, which is that the stimulus was too little of a good thing.” [4]

“it was obvious from the beginning [Obama’s Stimulus] was too small.” [5]

“Those of us who say that the stimulus was too small are often accused of after-the-fact rationalization: you said this would work, but now that it hasn’t, you’re just saying it wasn’t big enough. The quick answer to that accusation is that people like me said that the stimulus was too small in advance” [6]

“myself included, actually argued that the plan was too small and too cautious …. for the inadequate size of the stimulus plan” [7]

“[the Obama Stimulus] wouldn’t have been enough to fill the looming hole in the U.S. economy” [8]

Mr. Krugman got less deficit “Stimulus” spending than he had demanded, meaning he favored even greater debts than we actually have now.  But he has the chutzpah to ignore his own culpability and instead blames the messenger (S&P) and then blames the downgrade on, of all people, the Tea Party Republicans!  This is the same Tea Party caucus who has held partial power in the US House for a mere seven months and actually advocates cutting the deficit more than either Democrats or traditional Republicans.  Such chutzpah, Mr. Krugman!

 

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/08/opinion/credibility-chutzpah-and-debt.html?_r=2&src=me&ref=general

[2] For the benefit of those not familiar with chutzpah: “Chutzpah (pronounced /ˈhʊtspə/) is the quality of audacity, for good or for bad, but it is generally used negatively. The word derives from the Hebrew word ḥuṣpâ (חֻצְפָּה), meaning “insolence”, “audacity”, and “impertinence” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chutzpah

[3] http://treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/ir/ir_expense.htm

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/02/opinion/02krugman.html

[5] http://blogs.abcnews.com/george/2010/09/krugman-spend-more-tax-less-almost.html

[6]  http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/how-did-we-know-the-stimulus-was-too-small/

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/09/opinion/09krugman.html

[8]  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/09/opinion/09krugman.html?ref=paulkrugman

Pictures from wikipedia commons.