Vital Signs. Laugh at the US if you will, but Australia narrowly escaped a debt ceiling
The US debt ceiling is a form of self-delusion: a limit imposed on a borrower by the borrower itself. Australia had one until the Coalition and the Greens abolished it.
Published on the 08 Oct 2021 by Richard Holden
The US Congress is looking again to raise the debt ceiling which critics say creates unneeded uncertainty. Photo: Keith Lamond/AAP
The United States government is scheduled to hit its “debt ceiling” of US$28.4 billion on or around October 18.
The US debt ceiling isn’t like the limit on a credit card, which is imposed by the lender worried about the borrower’s ability to make payments.
Instead, it’s a form of self-delusion: a limit imposed by the borrower itself — the US government in the form of the Congress — in order to limit borrowing largely necessitated by decisions of the Congress.
This statement endorsed by a panel of leading US economists surveyed by the Chicago Booth school in 2013 sums up the absurdity of the requirement
because all federal spending and taxes must be approved by both houses of Congress and the executive branch, a separate debt ceiling that has to be increased periodically creates unneeded uncertainty and can potentially lead to worse fiscal outcomes
No-one knows what would happen if the Congress didn’t approve the regular increases in the debt ceiling made necessary by the programs it legislates. What does happen is that each increase gets approved at the last moment in a largely symbolic high stakes game of chicken.
Or, and this was the basis of a contingency plan drawn up in 2011, it would delay payments for other things, such as contractors, staff, social security recipients and Medicare providers, in order to free up enough cash to ensure it continued to make payments on debts.
Either would scare the heck out of financial markets, as does the fact that both are evoked each time Congress goes through the charade of deciding whether or not to do what it has so far always done.
In an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant TV show The West Wing, staffer Annabeth Schott asks: “so this debt ceiling thing is routine, or the end of the world?”
White House press secretary Toby Ziegler replies: “Both.”
What would happen if the US breached the debt ceiling? Credit ratings agency Moody’s says if the government defaulted GDP could fall by close to 4%, six million jobs could be lost, mortgage and business interest rates would spike, and US$15 trillion would be wiped off the value of assets markets.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen described the sequence as “catastrophic”.
Will the US end up raising the debt ceiling once again? Almost certainly. But even a small probability of a catastrophe is an unnecessary risk.
The politics of the matter are that the Republicans seem to want Democrats to raise the debt ceiling without Republican votes, preserving it as a campaign issue.
Since Democrats only have 50 of the 60 votes in the Senate required to force a vote, it requires a workaround. It’ll probably happen, but it’s a dangerous game.
Down under, Australia flirted with this stupidity, then escaped it.
Australia’s brief debt ceiling
During the financial crisis of 2008-09, Labor introduced a debt ceiling as a way of signalling its seriousness about economic management.
I would have thought its success in saving Australia from a recession did the trick, but I’m just an economist.
In its wisdom Labor set the ceiling at A$75 billion.
Since deficits kept happening and flirting with a debt ceiling was bad news, Labor increased the ceiling to A$200 billion, then to A$250 billion, then A$300 billion.
And, just like the reckless Republicans in the United States, an opportunistic Coalition in Australia opposed each increase.
Then, shortly after the Coalition took office in 2013, newly minted Treasurer Joe Hockey proposed a really big increase, from A$300 billion to A$500 billion, to end the recurring charade.
Labor took the high road, said it wouldn’t oppose the sort of thing it would also have to do in government, and refused to play politics. The debt ceiling was abolished, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Actually, no. I made that up.
With the help of The Greens, Coalition Treasurer Joe Hockey abolished Australia’s debt ceiling. Lukas Coch/AAP
What Labor did was start making noises about opposing the increase. “I don’t believe he’s come anywhere near yet justifying that extraordinary increase to the debt limit,” said Labor’s (otherwise generally sensible) treasury spokesman Chris Bowen.
It was a journalist’s rather bold suggestion that provided the cut through. Peter Martin suggested Hockey bypass Labor and do a deal with the Greens to abolish the ceiling altogether.