Friday, July 15, 2011

Full faith and credit.

Everyone wants in on this act. Particularly the bond rating agencies. Having been caught asleep at the switch in the run-up to crises past, Moody's and Standard & Poor's are loath to let it happen again. Going back to the Drexel Burham/Michael Milken affair, they affirmed the strong ratings on Executive Life just before the junk bond world collapsed. Same with Orange County, California, before losses in its investment pool drove it into bankruptcy. They threatened the bond insurance companies with downgrades if they did not bulk up their balance sheets with housing bonds, and we are all know how that ended up...

Now, Moody's and S&P want to play in the Treasury bond/debt ceiling game of high stakes poker in Washington. This week, both rating agencies piled on, threatening the United States with downgrades on its bonds if the debt ceiling matter is not promptly resolved. These pronouncements tend to have consequences, as the leadership of united Europe has found out. Greece has become yesterday's news, as over the past two weeks Portugal and Italy have seen their bond prices tumble and interest rates skyrocket as the markets responded to rating agency comments on their fiscal fortunes. Outraged European central bankers, struggling to find an effective solution to the crumbling of the Eurozone, attacked the bond rating firms for hidden political motivations and threatened to take action to "break the oligopoly."

And what of the Treasury market? How did U.S. Treasury bond market respond to the threatened downgrades?

Not even a whimper. Actually, a rally of sorts. Yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury declined by four basis points this week. As buyers bid up the prices, yields fell from 2.95% to 2.91% today, down from just over 3% a week ago. Europe's pain—much to their undying chagrine—continues to be our gain. From the bond market perspective, the debt ceiling debate seems almost to be a sideshow against the backdrop of the disintegration of Europe, even with only two weeks to go until Armageddon.

It's the new reality TV. Everyone is watching, everyone is talking about it, but if the markets are a measure of the real world, this most important and urgent of matters seems to have become part of the entertainment-cable-Internet-popular culture other-world that consumes our lives, but isn't really part of our lives.

Perhaps it is because we tend to believe that an actual default on U.S. Treasury obligations is simply beyond of the realm of possibility. We see all the actors yelling and screaming in Washington, playing their assigned roles, but we know deep inside that they cannot actually let the world unravel around them. Just because they are scared of Grover Norquist?

There is another point of view, which is that this is not about our debt at all, but a tug of war for which the debt ceiling is just a dramatic point of leverage. It is not about debt, because some would argue—though few appear to be listening—that constitutionally there is no crisis. The 14th Amendment would seem to be quite clear—to a lay-person—that the full faith and credit of the United States obligations cannot be questioned—and therefore cannot be undermined even by Congress. The counter-argument that has been offered is that the Constitution gives only to Congress the power to borrow. But the simple fact is that all of the bonds on which people suggest that we might default were borrowed with the full authority of Congress. And once authorized and issued, the obligation to repay cannot be questioned—or so it would seem.

Perhaps the bondholders who are lining up at the Fed window in D.C.—even as they are running from the same in capitals across Europe—know what seems to have eluded the bond rating agencies, which is that the debt will be paid and that the market—as is its wont—has already priced in the risk of default on our bonds, and it is a small price indeed. From a practical standpoint, the principal due on maturing Treasury bonds can be "rolled over" into newly issued Treasuries, with no debt ceiling impact. It is all the other "obligations" that are at risk. All of those obligations—the ones that impact the lives and livelihoods of all but the holders of our bonds—that are only valid if each Congress chooses to make good on the commitments of some prior Congress. And those obligations are indeed at risk, for the simple reason that as a nation we have consistently determined that we are not willing to tax ourselves for the goods and services that we seem to want, and with no action on the debt ceiling we will have neither the tax revenues nor the bond proceeds to pay for all of them.

The issue is not default. The issue is spending. In the view of House Republicans and Tea Party activists, spending should come down dramatically. Sacred cows should be slaughtered. Entitlements should be reconceived. The New Deal and the Great Society have run their course. But for the Senate Republicans the motivations are more complex. The plan put forward by Senator Mitch McConnell skillfully serves a larger set of interests and would allow the status quo ante so dear to Senators to survive. His plan would essentially would take Congress out of the debt ceiling game, and give his colleagues the best of all outcomes: The spending would continue while someone else—the President—would take the blame.

Right now, both the President and Senate leaders believe that the fear of default should provide enough motivation to get something done—along with the cover each side needs to take steps that might otherwise be unthinkable: Cutting entitlements, raising taxes, trimming the military. But so far, the House leadership is not biting. For the Democrats, the McConnell proposal may well emerge as a middle ground of sorts. But for the House Republicans and the Tea Party—those who truly want to reduce the size of government—McConnell's success would constitute a stinging defeat, an historic moment lost, and a movement scorned.

The ultimate question is what the President plans to do on August 2nd if there is no agreement. One must presume that there is a plan in place: The 14th Amendment will be upheld, the bonds will be paid, the full faith and credit of the nation will be reaffirmed—and massive cuts and sequesters will be put into effect.

As great as the fear of default might be, both the President and Mitch McConnell must fear even more what would happen next. If the markets are right, and no default ensues, the motivation to reach a middle ground or face-saving solution will dissipate, and each side will once again be captive to their base. Caught in a lie—that he knew there would be no default—the President would lose the high ground. Vindicated for their obstinance, the House leadership will have even less reason to negotiate.

That may well be the endgame that true believers among the new breed of House Republicans have in mind. And it does not make them crazy, just strategic. If they believe that default will not be allowed to occur—as a matter of Constitutional obligation and proven bi-partisan deference to the bond markets—then reaching August 3rd with no agreement might reasonably be their goal. In three weeks, they can achieve their objective of an America forced to live within her means. And ironically, from that perspective the only thing the President could do to stop them would be to allow a default to occur even when it is within his power and authority to prevent it.

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