4 Ways to Avert the Debt Ceiling (and the Most Likely Option Is the Scariest)

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Here's why Ben Bernanke killed the platinum coin, and what it means for the debt-ceiling showdown

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(Reuters)

The coin will not be minted.

At least, not in anything remotely close to 13-digit denominations. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post reports, the Treasury and Federal Reserve have ruled out creating a trillion-dollar coin, which was a real possibility thanks to a crazy loophole, to stop us from defaulting on our obligations if the debt ceiling isn't raised. It's Congress or bust, when it comes to paying our bills on time.

This was probably the least surprising development in the history of developments. It wasn't just that the trillion-dollar coin would have been a political liability because it sounds silly -- that was the best, and only, argument against it -- but rather that it required the Fed to give up its sole control of monetary policy. The Fed would not do that. Now, the Treasury minting trillion-dollar coins sure sounds different from the Fed buying bonds, but it's not. It's just sterilized quantitative easing (QE), albeit with a platinum tint. Or, in English, it's printing money, buying stuff, and preventing this new money from increasing inflation. The Fed does this when it 1) electronically "prints" money, 2) buys bonds from banks with this new money, and 3) ties up these new bank reserves with operations like reverse repos. The Treasury does the same when it 1) mints the trillion-dollar coin, 2) uses it to pay for the government's existing obligations, and 3) the Fed sells bonds in equal measure to suck the money out. 

You might wonder why the Fed would play along if the Treasury turned to coin seigniorage. Answer: the Fed has its inflation target, and it cares very much about hitting it. The Fed would be compelled to counter the Treasury's coin-minting, although, as as Greg Ip of The Economist points out, the Fed might not need to do so for quite awhile, and could resort to raising interest rates on interbank lending and reserves instead of selling long-term bonds. In either case, the Treasury would be dragging the Fed into QE it didn't want, and, as University of Oregon professor Tim Duy put it, effectively blurring the line between fiscal and monetary policy. Fed independence would be a thing of the past ... unless it killed the coin first. Which, of course, it did, as Zeke Miller of Buzzfeed reports. The platinum coin gambit depended on the Fed accepting it as legal currency for the Treasury's account, and the Fed said it would not. RIP, trillion-dollar coin.

Now, the trillion-dollar coin may be dead, but the debt ceiling is not. President Obama continues to insist he will not negotiate over it, but the administration has said it won't use either of the most likely work-arounds -- the 14th amendment or the platinum coin -- if it comes to that. That leaves the president with (at least) four more outlandish-ish options if House Republicans refuse to pay the bills they authorized, and one actual option. Here they are, from least likely to most likely.

-- The Treasury could repo Mount Rushmore to the Fed. As Karl Smith of Modeled Behavior argues, the Treasury could theoretically sell anything valuable enough, like offshore oil rights, to the Fed, and agree to buy it back later. This kind of repurchase (repo) agreement would give the Treasury cash flow if it's running so low that it can't pay the interest on our debt, but there are two big problems. First, repo agreements are not, economically-speaking, sales, but rather loans, so it would almost certainly violate the debt ceiling. And second, there's no way the Fed would do this. So there's that.

-- The Fed could send some of its bonds back to the Treasury as dividends. Printing money is a pretty good way to make money, never more so than the past few years. The Fed remits most of its profits -- $89 billion in 2012 -- to the Treasury, which kind of makes the Treasury its sole shareholder. As @IvanTheK first suggested, the Fed could advance some of these profits to the Treasury as a dividend if there wasn't enough incoming revenue to pay the interest on the debt on any given day during a debt ceiling standoff. It's an elegant solution, but, again, not one the Fed is likely to go for.

-- Use IOUs to pay our bills. If we don't hit the debt ceiling, we will immediately have to stop paying 40 percent of our bills ... unless we pay the rest with IOUs. Paul Krugman proposed something along these lines, and law professor Edward Kleinbard points out that California successfully used them during its own budget crisis in 2009. Back then, California paid people with IOUs yielding 3.75 percent that people could trade to banks for cash at a slight haircut. In other words, the banks made money off the trades. The federal government could do the same, but there are a few legal hurdles. If the IOUs pay any interest, it's hard to see how they're not debt; but if they don't pay any interest, it's hard to see how they're not money. Either would be illegal. Maybe everybody would be happy enough with this arrangement not to challenge it, like in California, but maybe not -- not to mention the awful optics of "Obama dollars".

-- Refuse to negotiate, and blame the Republicans for any economic damage. Welcome to everybody's favorite game, debt ceiling chicken! Here's how it works. Obama says there's nothing he can do to lift the debt ceiling on his own; that's it up to Republicans to pay the country's bills; and that if they don't, they will get blamed for Social Security checks not going out. It's the strategy former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin used back in the mid-90s when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened to hold the debt ceiling hostage, and it's the strategy Obama seems to be using now. As Ezra Klein points out, Obama has deliberately ruled out all of these different debt ceiling end-arounds, because he doesn't want Republicans to think they have any alternative to increasing it themselves. Now, maybe half of them really do welcome default, as Politico reports, but maybe not. That's a terrifying bunch of "maybes", but it's where we are today.

In other words, Obama is happy not to mint the coin, because he thinks minting it reduces his leverage. Now it's a psychological game of chicken, with Obama and Republicans accelerating toward the other, each convinced they cannot swerve, and when they meet in the middle, they'll set off the mother of all global market crashes.

And you thought a trillion-dollar coin was crazy.
 
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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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