...Archive for October 2013

A conspiracy theory of the debt ceiling

So, my working hypothesis is that, should the debt ceiling actually bind, the US Treasury will prioritize payment on formal debt securities and then institute some form of delayed payments on the rest of its obligations. Like the vaunted small business struggling to make payroll, it will borrow funds from suppliers and other creditors by stretching accounts payable. If I’m wrong about that, everything that follows will be wrong.

This is my second post trying to think through the consequences of such a regime. In the first, I pointed out that claims to future delayed payments would be securitized, and that prices of those securities would be informative, they would constitute a kind of back-door approximation of an NGDP futures market, which, as Scott Sumner has persuasively argued, would be a useful thing to have around.

That was an optimistic take on delayed payments. But there is a flip-side of the missing platinum coin that is a bit darker. If Treasury delays payments, what will not happen is a simple withdrawal of missing government expenditures from the economy. (It really is important to think about banks!) One of the oldest and most basic functions of a bank is to discount accounts receivable, to advance funds today against credible obligations of third parties to pay in the near future. Originally this was a service offered to business clients. Today, the same principle underlies credit lines offered to individuals, including direct-deposit, payday, “structured settlement”, and tax-refund loans.

If the government starts delaying payments, banks will be able to fill in the gap, quickly and profitably. Advances against government obligations would require no meaningful credit analysis. As they would be secured by obligations of the Treasury, they would have little or no cost in terms of regulatory capital. The banking system faces no meaningful reserve constraint. Nothing whatsoever would prevent the banks from simply lending “from thin air” payments that the US government is withholding.

The first hit might even be free! (ht Brad Plumer) But this service won’t be free over an indefinite long-term. Large business customers might pay the few basic points implied by a loan against government security for a few months time. But individual marks customers will undoubtedly be charged “convenience fees” for the service of drawing advances on government payments that render the overall cost of the loans, when annualized, very high. We will, of course, be treated to the usually litany of justifications for exorbitant short-term loan costs: You don’t annualize hotel rates and compare them with apartment rents! Dealing with stinky, not-rich people is expensive! But in the end, this would be a nice line of business, which would multiply over time if delayed payments become the new normal for debt-ceiling-constrained government borrowing.

A delayed payments regime would amount to a regressive tax issued at two levels: first by the Federal government, and then by the financial industry. By delaying payments, the Federal government would tax recipients of government disbursements by forcing them to finance loans to the Treasury for free. Like all taxes, the actual incidence would be more complicated than the direct hit. Payees with bargaining power — say vendors of bespoke military systems or well-connected contractors — would find ways to add the finance cost to their bills, and largely escape the tax. Payees without bargaining power — your average social security recipient, for example — would have to simply accept the delayed payment and eat the interest cost that the government should be paying. A second regressive “tax” would be imposed by financial service providers. They would, as usual, compete to offer cost-efficient products to wealthier and more astute customers, while charging smaller, weaker, more desperate customers large fees. In the end, the Federal deficit would be reduced and bank profits would swell, primarily on the backs of the least-savvy, lowest-bargaining-power government payees.

A common narrative about the debt ceiling is basically a Frankenstein story: businesspeople funded these Tea Party crazies, and now despite pulling all their levers, they just can’t control the monster they have created. And maybe that’s right.

But suppose, plausibly, that the Jamie Dimons of the world know what Treasury has assiduously ensured the rest of us do not, which is exactly what Treasury is capable of and planning to do when George Washington bumps his head. And suppose it is debt prioritization plus delayed payments. Is it too much to wonder whether some quarters of the business community — you know, the ones who own the place — may not be pushing quite as hard as they pretend to raise or eliminate the debt ceiling?

I hope that it is too much to wonder. I hope it is evidence only of my own paranoia that I do wonder.

Update History:

  • 15-Sept-2013, 10:15 p.m. PDT: Added link to mathbabe post at “exorbitant short-term loan costs”.

Mobility is no answer to dispersion

Lots of times in conversations about inequality, mobility is cited as a potential remedy. What matters, according to this argument, is not how much inequality there is, but whether there is opportunity for people anywhere in the wealth/income spectrum to rise. American politicians of both parties, loathe to tackle actual inequality, have made a religion of the phrase “equality of opportunity”.

It is easy, and accurate, to counter the “equality of opportunity” fetish on practical grounds. “Equality of opportunity” echoes another famous phrase in American politics, “separate but equal”. Even if one concedes the theoretical point (which one should not), neither sort of equality is achievable in a real-world social context. The schools into which an impoverished and oppressed minority are herded were never going to match those offered to children of the affluent and well-enfranchised. Children born to parents who can barely afford even to be present themselves will never have the same opportunities as kids tutored for hundreds of dollars an hour and groomed for internships by well-connected professionals.

But if you are a utilitarian, the case for social mobility is incoherent even on theoretical grounds. Under ordinary assumptions of diminishing marginal utility and a social welfare function that aggregates individual utilities, for any distribution of wealth, overall welfare is maximized when each individual knows her place with perfect certainty from the start. A person who expects to land on the bottom of the distribution might prefer that some uncertainty be added into the mix, but that benefit will be more than balanced by the cost to someone near the top of the distribution facing downward mobility. If we augment standard utility functions with plausible notions of habit formation and social reference group comparison, the case against mobility grows even stronger. The cost and shame of downward mobility dramatically outmatches the potential benefit of upward mobility. If that sounds abstruse and theoretical, it shouldn’t. For example, I don’t think you can understand the United States response to the financial crisis without taking into account the genuine sympathy of policymakers and other influencers for the plight of people within their social communities who faced banishment to dramatically lower stations under theoretically superior policy alternatives. A functional polity values rising fortunes across the wealth spectrum, but it fears and resists falling fortunes much more strenuously. I would go so far as to claim this is a universal social fact, a characteristic of all polities that endure. Capitalism is always crony capitalism — and socialism tends towards crony socialism! — not because of corrupt bad actors but because human lifestyles are sticky-downward. Large social divergences can in practice be remedied smoothly only by convergence upward from the bottom. The wise course is to prevent extreme divergence from emerging in the first place. Once it has, the only way out is to hope for growth, and to direct the fruits of growth towards the bottom of the distribution.

These issues are glaringly obvious at a global level. The United States and Europe are full of people who tut and cluck about poverty and misery in the erstwhile Third World and elsewhere. But no one imagines that “mobility” in the sense used in domestic politics would be an acceptable answer. If we are honest, do we want, would we even remotely tolerate, any sort of political change that gave our children “equality of opportunity” with children born in Gabon today, holding the global distribution of outcomes constant? Obviously not. We might embrace a fig-leaf “level playing field”, where advantages we can reliably provide would ensure our kids the 90+ percentile lifestyles we consider civilized despite some self-aggrandizing formal equality. (All hail the meritocracy!) But we would resist with the full horror of our armaments any reform that meant our kids should face anywhere near the probability of deprivation and poverty implied by a fair lottery of the global distribution of outcomes. At a global level, we will either have “stability” that is really ossification (or expansion) of present divergences, or convergence via rise from beneath. Convergence from the top, downward absolute mobility, is simply unthinkable.

The first-order utilitarian costs of social mobility outweigh the benefits, full-stop. Obviously, there are more complicated stories you can tell about why social mobility is a good thing, desirable to some degree. Perhaps the prospect for social mobility creates incentives for individuals that cause the distribution of outcomes for the full population to shift upwards. Perhaps concerns about justice (however we define that) should supervene to some degree the utilitarian cost of social mobility. I buy all that. To some degree.

But if you fancy yourself a utilitarian, you have to acknowledge that mobility, like the inequality that renders it possible, is attended by first-order costs to social welfare. Those costs may be outweighed by second-order “dynamic” effects over some range, but that’s a case you have to work to make that goes well beyond conventional utilitarian analysis, well beyond most models that economists actually write down and use. And it’s a case with built-in limits. The first-order costs of inequality and mobility will eventually overwhelm whatever second-order benefits we wish to ascribe to them.

The case for both inequality and social mobility is very much like the case for patents and copyrights. Patents and copyrights are first-order economic distortions, grants of monopoly power by the state. But we claim these particular distortions also “promote the progress of science and useful arts“. So we face a trade-off. We accept and even encourage the distortions, within limits. But we understand (or we should understand) that we are playing with fire, that there is only a narrow range within which these prima facie bad ideas might be redeemed by more complicated virtues. I favor inequality, but not too much of it, just as I favor copyrights for strictly limited terms. But in this era of Mickey Mouse protection acts and rent extracting oligarchs, those limits have been exceeded and the bad ideas are just bad ideas that need to be pared back.

Update: Unsurprisingly, Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution were miles ahead of me on this, see Stasis, Churn, and Growth. My mind is a device which operates by so thoroughly confusing unoriginal thoughts that I can no longer identify their provenance.

Update History:

  • 24-Nov-2013, 1:50 p.m. PST: Added pointer to Marginal Revolution piece, which remarkably echoes my own, 14 months in advance…

Why Scott Sumner should love the debt ceiling

Suppose that the debt ceiling is never raised. Never ever. It remains in perpetuity at its current level of $16.7 trillion dollars.

Suppose also that the Treasury chooses to (and is operationally able to) prioritize payments on formal Treasury securities so that there is never a default on a US bond or bill. At or near the statutory debt limit, Treasury suspends other payments to build up a cash buffer sufficient to cover any spikes in payments due net of taxes. Once that is accomplished, Treasury securities can resume their role as the nearly default-risk-free asset at the center of the global financial system.

The question, then, is how are the other obligations of the US Treasury to be discharged? If the US government cannot (formally) increase its borrowings, then it is in theory subject to a cash-in-hand constraint. It can only spend the money it has, primarily in the form of funds on deposit at the Federal Reserve. (Yes, my chartalist friends, this is stupid, since the consolidated government/central-bank need never be bound by a financing constraint in a currency it issues. But in this case, the political system chooses, however bizarrely or foolishly, to constrain itself. C’est la vie!)

Humans, when ostensibly subject to a cash-in-hand constraint, do not in fact always live within their means. In particular, humans sometimes surreptitiously borrow money by writing checks against funds they don’t actually have. If I write a check for goods and services you provide today, you are lending me money. Usually that is mere transactional credit — an advance of convenience against funds I already have. But not always. If I write a check against funds I hope I’ll have in my account before it clears, you’re lending me money, whether you know it or not.

This is usually an expensive borrowing strategy for humans, because if I fail to assure an inflow of funds before my bank is ordered to pay the check, I will be hit by all kinds of costs — overdraft fees, returned-check fees, perhaps even fines or jail time if the “bad check” (defaulted loan) is deemed to be fraudulently arranged.

However, the government has a much cozier relationship with its bank than your typical check-kiter. Suppose the government, in response to the insoluble problem presented by congressional spending mandates and a debt limit, simply decides to pay all its bills as old-fashioned paper checks. It then asks the Federal Reserve not to “bounce” checks presented for payment against insufficient funds, but simply to hold them and make payments on a first-in, first-out basis as funds become available. Everyone who deposits a US Treasury simply finds that the funds don’t appear in their account until weeks or even months later. (Banks, in order to protect their own cash flows, would revise their “hold period” policies with respect to checks from the US Treasury, making funds available only when the checks actually clear, like they might with deposit of a large personal check.)

Suddenly, the debt ceiling is moot. Every check issued by the US Treasury is basically a credit line that does not count towards the debt limit. The Treasury pays its bills, on time and as usual, in the form of paper checks. It’s just that those checks clear a bit sluggishly.

Of course, recipients of US Treasury checks may not be happy to wait some indeterminate period before actually spendable funds appear in their bank accounts. There would quickly arise a liquid market discounting endorsed Treasury checks. Suppose “the market” expects payment of checks two months following a deposit, and the current short-term Treasury bill rate is about 1%. then you should be able to sell an endorsed $100 check from the Treasury for $99.83. Let’s call it $99.80, because the purchaser would want to be compensated for the uncertainty surrounding the exact time of payment. Of course, 1% is much higher than current T-bill rates. At a more realistic yield of 0.02%, you’d pay about a nickel per $1000 to redeem a two-month delayed check today, including some compensation for buyers’ uncertainty.

But this would be a very large market, and banks would quickly find themselves accumulating and trading billions of dollars of endorsed Treasury checks every day, with each day’s cohort trading at slightly different prices. The delay would initially be short, but it would expand for a while, then slow and eventually become pretty stable, somewhere (I am guessing!) between several months and two years. More precisely, the delay would be (total_debt - traditional_debt) / (tax_receipts - interest_on_traditional_debt). Traditional US Treasuries would remain actively traded in a $16.7T market, providing us with full risk-free yield curves. So we’d have good market predictions of the interest cost of traditional debt, and know the appropriate risk-free rate to discount for any length of delay. The only real unknowns relevant to pricing endorsed Treasury checks would be 1) the rate of future tax receipts and 2) a risk premium surrounding date-of-payment uncertainty. Date-of-payment uncertainty would itself be mostly a function of tax-receipt uncertainty. To a first, pretty good, approximation, the price of these these securities would just reflect a market estimate of the rate of future tax receipts relative to the known current stock of debt. One would have to adjust a little bit for illiquidity and uncertainty premia, but on these ultimately very low-risk securities, the adjustments would probably be quite small.

Holding tax law and the character of economic activity constant, tax receipts are pretty proportional to… nominal GDP. Of course, tax law and the character of economic activity are never constant. But periods of real uncertainty surrounding near-future tax law are infrequent, and the character of economic activity changes slowly. So a “futures market” in Federal tax receipts would not be a bad approximation of a futures market in nominal GDP!

I think Scott Sumner is the Svengali behind all of Ted Cruz’s antics. He must be. It’s the only sensible explanation.

I can’t quite wrap my head around what Treasury will actually do when the debt ceiling binds, if they won’t “mint the coin” or issue super-premium bonds, or invoke the “constitutional option”. Obviously the scenario described here is very speculative. But prioritizing Treasuries and slowing payments to everyone else doesn’t sound totally wacko. And if they do that, even if it’s not via paper checks, financial markets will try to figure out ways to discount and trade the loans implicit in delayed Treasury obligations. Maybe that will turn out to be a good thing!

p.s. i’ve been interested for a while in the possibility securities that pay-out fixed, predetermined sums on uncertain, revenue-dependent schedules. they strike me as a nice sort of debt-equity hybrid, offering some of the certainty of debt but much less hazard to issuers that payments will come due when they cannot easily be met. prices of such securities would be informative and easy to interpret. i’ve primarily thought about these with respect to small business finance. they seem an odd fit for a government that can in theory issue currency at will. such a government would pay for insurance it does not need because investors would on average demand a higher-rate of return than for fixed-term debt. but the informative prices might be worth the extra cost! and, in the debt-ceiling-forced scenario described here, the cost would be borne at least in part by recipients of government checks, who face an implicit tax.