If We Hit the Debt Ceiling: Default Is Unlikely, Recession Is Certain

Hitting the debt limit could mean an immediate 20 percent cut to government spending, which would almost certain shrink a nervous economy.


Default hysteria has heated up as the federal government shutdown spills into its second week and October's debt deadline draws closer. The President, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and most Republicans agree that a debt default, not paying interest on federal debt, would be a calamity far worse than the Lehman crisis. PIMCO co-chief executive Mohamed El-Erian said as much earlier this month. But PIMCO’s other co-chief, Bill Gross, is buying treasuries. Why?

The answer is simple. There will be no default—on Treasuries, at least. But paying Treasuries after the X Date will mean less money for the rest of government, meaning a much weaker economy, which will further drive down interest rates lower and drive up the price of treasuries. 

Reaching the debt ceiling, which we will do at least by the end of October, means no more new government borrowing until it is raised. But not borrowing does not mean defaulting on interest payments on government debt. Much like approaching your credit card limit has different consequences from missing a payment, hitting the debt ceiling is not synonymous with defaulting on debt. Households prioritize outlays as borrowing limits are reached, paying mortgages or rents and perhaps minimum credit card payments, while curtailing more discretionary spending such as eating out and going on vacation. The US treasury will have to prioritize too.

Hitting the debt ceiling means that government spending gets cut dramatically, by about 20 percent under current conditions. The CBO projects the federal government will spend $3,602 billion in fiscal year 2014, $560 billion of which will be financed by borrowing, and $237 billion of which will be spent on meeting interest obligations. Without new borrowing and while continuing as it is required to do (pay interest on its debt), the federal government will have $797 billion (20 percent of $3,602 billion) less available to spend on non-interest obligations. If mandatory spending remains unaffected, the cuts would force discretionary spending to drop by 48 percent.

Figure 1 demonstrates what percentage cuts in outlays would have been necessary in prior years in order to avoid default, given the exclusion of new borrowing and the requirement to pay interest on the debt.

Pre-crisis levels troughed at approximately 15 percent in FY2007, when revenues were high and borrowing low, then increased to 24 percent in FY2008 and spiked at 45.5 percent in FY2009, a sign of the stimulative fiscal policies enacted to counter the recession during that time. Though these levels have since declined – due to a decrease in debt issuance and interest rates since 2010 – during the last debt ceiling crisis, in 2011, the cost of avoiding default would have been twice as high as it is today, requiring spending cuts of approximately 42 percent. Perhaps this explains why an agreement, then, was reached fairly quickly. Regardless, during late July and early August of 2011, the S&P fell be 20 percent, and third quarter growth, which had been estimated at 3.3 percent in the June Wall Street Journal poll, turned out sharply weaker at 1.4 percent that year. Prices of treasury notes and bonds soared as interest rates collapsed. The yield on the treasury 10 year note fell by 80 basis points between July 28 and August 9 of that year, before an intensification of the Greek crisis pushed rates even lower in September.

Presented by

John Makin and Brittany Pineros

John Makin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where Brittany Pineros is a research assistant in economic policy.

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