On the Brink

There has been much consternation these past few weeks about the federal budget and the debt ceiling, with the possibility that the ratings agencies could downgrade the U.S. credit rating.    While some cheer the possibility of a U.S. default as a necessary step to reign in spending, MIT economist Simon Johnson writes that such a default would yield rather unhappy consequences.

A government default would destroy the credit system as we know it. The fundamental benchmark interest rates in modern financial markets are the so-called risk-free rates on government bonds. Removing this pillar of the system—or creating a high degree of risk around U.S. Treasurys—would disrupt many private contracts and all kinds of transactions.

The result would be capital flight—but to where? Many banks would have a similar problem: A collapse in U.S. Treasury prices (the counterpart of higher interest rates, as bond prices and interest rates move in opposite directions) would destroy their balance sheets. There is no company in the United States that would be unaffected by a government default—and no bank or other financial institution that could provide a secure haven for savings. There would be a massive run into cash, on an order not seen since the Great Depression, with long lines of people at ATMs and teller windows withdrawing as much as possible.


But that’s not all:

Private credit, moreover, would disappear from the U.S. economic system, confronting the Federal Reserve with an unpleasant choice. Either it could step in and provide an enormous amount of credit directly to households and firms (much like Gosbank, the Soviet Union’s central bank), or it could stand by idly while GDP fell 20 to 30 percent—the magnitude of decline that we have seen in modern economies when credit suddenly dries up.

With the private sector in free fall, consumption and investment would decline sharply. America’s ability to export would also be undermined, because foreign markets would likely be affected, and because, in any case, if export firms cannot get credit, they most likely cannot produce.

Not exactly a rosy picture.