Why the Debt Ceiling Matters: The Quintillion-Dollar Coin Problem
I was going to write a technical column today about how the sensitivity of bonds (and consequently, lots of other asset prices) to interest rates increase as interest rates decline, and discuss the implications for equity investors nowadays as interest rates head back up. That article will have to wait another week.
Today, I want to just quickly dispense with a really silly idea that keeps making the rounds every time there is a standoff on the debt ceiling, pushed by the same guys who think Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) will work (even though we just tried it, and it didn’t).
The idea is that thanks to a law passed back in the 1990s, the Treasury has the right to issue a platinum coin of any denomination. Ergo, it could produce a $1 trillion coin, deposit it at the Federal Reserve (which does not have the option to not accept the legal tender, Secretary Janet Yellen’s recently-voiced concerns notwithstanding), and continue to pay the government’s bills. Why? One well-traveled and entertaining simpleton started explaining the reasoning for doing this by saying “there’s this silly, anachronistic, and ineffectual law on the books called the Debt Ceiling…”
If we started doing really really silly, not to mention stupid, things to get around every law that we thought was silly and anachronistic, legislators would be busy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (And, obviously, the law isn’t “ineffectual”; if it was then we wouldn’t need to get around it.)
I am continually amazed by how durable the really stupid ideas are. For instance, the notion that the government is lying about inflation to the tune of 6% per year is an idea that never seems to die, even though you can show with basic math that it can’t possibly be the case. So, let’s dispense with this one even though I am sure I will have to keep slaying this dragon when it inevitably comes back from the dead.
A useful tool of logic that’s handy when you are trying to smoke out a dumb idea is to ask, “If that works, why don’t we do lots more of it?” Let’s not try to figure out why a $1 trillion coin is a bad idea. Let’s try to figure out why a $1 quintillion coin (a million trillions) is a bad idea.
After all, if we are going to mint a coin anyway, it doesn’t cost much more to stamp “quinti” than it does to stamp “tri”. And if the Treasury minted a quintillion-dollar coin and deposited it at the Fed, it would be much more significant. With that balance, the Treasury could pay off all outstanding debt, fully fund Medicare and Social Security, and cancel all taxes basically forever while also dramatically increasing services. Why isn’t that a better idea? I spit on your trillion-dollar coin.
Naturally, that would be a terrible idea and it’s now obvious why. I can think of several reasons, but I’ll leave most of them for other people to highlight in the comments.
The immediate one is that by paying off all federal debt, increasing spending, and decreasing taxes to zero, the money supply would increase immensely and immediately. As we saw quite recently, the result that rapidly follows is much higher inflation. Much much higher inflation.
I will see your 8% and raise you 800%. Yes, to some extent that would depend on Congress deciding to do that spending and cut those taxes – but do you doubt that would happen? And the Treasury offering to buy back all of the outstanding bonds wouldn’t need Congressional authorization. That’s trillions in money being suddenly returned to bondholders, which puts it back in circulation.
A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’d be talking real money.
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