Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Guest Post: Platinum is a President's Best Friend


Editor's Note: Clayton is a long-time friend of the blog as well as a talented economics writer. His own blog, which can be found here, is excellent, and I'm thrilled to publish this fantastic post he wrote.

It's day nine of the government shutdown, and the world has not ended. Sure, many services and programs that the desperately poor rely upon are not functioning, and the FDA is no longer able to properly monitor our food supply, but that's small potatoes--at least to hear folks in the media tell it. What's a little salmonella between friends?

But even if I could forgive the shutdown, and the lack of leadership on both sides of the aisle that preceded it (although it's almost entirely the Republicans' fault, I can't imagine why Obama did not craft some deft political strategy ahead of time), I'd like to call attention to the much bigger issue at hand: the debt ceiling that we are scheduled to hit on October 17.

On the 17th, the Federal government will be legally prohibited form issuing any new bonds to make up the difference between its revenues and expenditures. Currently the Federal government spends about $60 billion per day and collects about $30 billion in revenues. You see where this is going; almost immediately, the government becomes inoperable.

Let's leave aside the stupidity of a law that says Congress must set tax rates, spending commitments, and then have a third vote to allow the implications of the previous two. You can decide to buy three apples and four bananas, but whether or not you end up with seven pieces of fruit afterwards is not really up to you; numbers add up. Full stop.

And let's ignore the fact that there won't be enough money coming in to send out Social Security checks, Medicare payments, soldiers' wages, and the budget for the TSA (okay, maybe it's not all bad). The truly terrifying prospect now looming on our collective horizon is that the Treasury may very well miss coupon payments that are due to holders of our national debt. And that, to understate things dramatically, would be not to our advantage.

The full faith and credit of the United States is the underpinning of not only our financial system but that of the world. If the Treasury department fails to service outstanding debt by remitting coupon payments as they come due, some $16 trillion in global financial assets will suddenly be relegated to junk-bond status, with a corresponding plunge in value and spike in yields. Financial institutions and investment funds the world over will take a massive capital hit, with many becoming insolvent. Think the crisis of 2008-2009 writ large.

Which brings me to the trillion dollar platinum coin. Obama should instruct Jack Lew, the Treasury Secretary, to mint the thing tomorrow. It would then be deposited with the Federal Reserve in Uncle Sam's account and presto, more than enough money appears to operate the Federal government. It really is as simple as that; Social Security checks go out, interest gets paid, the whole shebang.

I can hear the protests now: "You can't do that; it's illegal! It's immoral!" I beg to differ. Due to an arcane but nonetheless legal loophole, the Treasury can mint platinum coins of any denomination, and that includes $1 trillion. Some have argued that this infringes on the independence of the Federal Reserve to conduct monetary policy, and they're correct. But that is a small price to pay, and has legal precedent that predates the creation of the Fed in 1913. From 1862 to 1971 the Treasury issued United States notes directly, which circulated alongside the Federal Reserve notes we all know and (with notable exceptions) love today.

The real question here isn't whether or not the platinum coin is an awkward policy instrument, or whether or not it it will make for some unwanted political theater. It will. But the question facing President Obama and his advisers at the moment is this: Are you willing to save the financial integrity of the United States government, the credibility of the dollar, and our nation's preeminence in the global economy in return for some institutional hurt-feelings and a scathing review on Fox and Friends?

All global hegemons experience a moment when it becomes apparent that they are no longer the powers they once were. For Rome it was the moment Alaric and his Visigoths stormed the Eternal City in 410; for Great Britain it was the week in 1916 that the Royal Navy could not shake the Sultan's troops from the shores of Gallipoli. The global hegemony of the United States deserves a better end than a few hand-wringing politicians standing around afraid to try an unorthodox financial transaction.