A year ago, out of nowhere, the grotesque suggestion to “resolve” the US debt ceiling with a platinum dollar coin came, and like a bad dream, mercifully disappeared even as the debt ceiling negotiations dragged until the last minute, without this idea being remotely considered for implementation, for one simple reason: it is sheer political, monetary and financial lunacy. And yet there are those, supposedly intelligent people, who one year later, continue dragging this ridiculous farce, as a cheap parlor trick which is nothing but a transparent attempt for media trolling and exposure, which only distracts from America’s unsustainable spending problem and does nothing to address the real crisis the US welfare state finds itself in. And while numerous respected people have taken the time to explain the stupidity of the trillion dollar coin, few have done so as an integral part of the statist mainstream for one simple reason – it might provide a loophole opportunity, however tiny, to perpetuate the broken American model even for a day or two, if “everyone is in on it.” Luckily, that is no longer the case and as even Ethan Harris from Bank of America (a firm that would be significantly impaired if America was forced to suddenly live within its means), the whole idea is nothing more than “the latest bad idea” straight “from the land of fiscal make believe.” We can only hope that this finally puts this whole farce to bed.
From Bank of America:
The trillion dollar tooth fairy
From the land of fiscal make-believe
The budget skirmishes over the past few years have spawned a lot of bad ideas. The latest is that the US Treasury issue a trillion dollar coin to get around the debt ceiling. We see several problems with this plan. First, its legality is open to question. Second, it would worsen the coming battle over spending cuts. Moreover, it would further deepen the distrust between the two political parties. Finally, it risks being the first step down a slippery slope of debt monetization.
Finding change in the Treasury’s sofa
A hot idea for resolving the fiscal crisis is for the US Treasury to issue a trillion dollar platinum coin in order to avoid the looming debt ceiling. The idea comes from a broad interpretation of law that gives the Treasury secretary the ability to mint and issue commemorative platinum coins “in such quantity and of such variety as the secretary determines to be appropriate.”
The trillion dollar coin plan work as follows: the Treasury would deposit this coin at the Fed, which acts as the Treasury’s banker. The Treasury then could draw upon its account to pay for outlays. This action would allow funding for an additional trillion dollars of spending without having to worry about raising the debt ceiling, buying another year of breathing room. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised a year from now, then presumably the Treasury could mint another coin.
Wouldn’t this action be massively inflationary? Proponents argue no. With the economy operating below potential, allowing this already-authorized spending to occur would prevent a further collapse in aggregate demand. Were the Fed concerned about possible inflation, it could “sterilize” the impact by selling from its existing stock of bonds. In the limit, the Fed could sell a trillion dollars worth of bonds — that should squelch any inflationary impetus and remove any hint of outright debt monetization, according to supporters.
More debt limit desperation
This plan is just the latest in a string of “solutions” to the debt crisis. In the summer of 2011, several ideas were floated to get around the debt ceiling altogether. One proposal was for the Treasury to sell gold holdings to the Fed in exchange for cash. A second was for the Fed to simply extinguish some portion of its Treasury debt holdings. With one stroke of the pen, it would wipe out a big chunk of the debt and allow the Treasury to issue more. A third idea — which is making a bit of a comeback among some commentators — is to invoke the 14th amendment and declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional, as “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.” Others took a different tack, and argued the US should just default to force a compromise. Thankfully, none of these options were seriously pursued at the time.
A wooden nickel
If this trillion dollar idea sounds a bit too good to be true, it is.
First and foremost, it may not be legal. The idea effectively rests on a loophole in a law that allows platinum coins to be issued by the Treasury — but for
commemorative, not fiscal, purposes. Opponents suggest that the courts would strike down this plan since it is not the intent of the original bill. Others have questioned its constitutionality: they argue that Congress cannot (and did not intend to) delegate fiscal decisions to the Treasury. That is, the Treasury must implement the spending and tax — and debt limit — decisions of the Congress, not override them. However, opinions are mixed as to whether these criticisms would be enough to invalidate the trillion dollar coin idea in a court of law.
Whether legal or not, it would almost certainly provoke a bitter court battle. And at least one Republican representative, Greg Walden of Oregon, has said he would propose legislation to preclude the trillion dollar coin plan. While the Obama administration so far has not commented on the idea, in 2011 it rejected on legal grounds the idea of invoking the 14th amendment to avoid a debt limit battle. However, in early January House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she would be willing to invoke the amendment “in a second.”
Taking these sorts of actions would almost certainly worsen, not ease, the coming battles over the spending — a second reason to be skeptical of the idea of the trillion dollar coin. As we have noted before, the debt ceiling is just one of three brinkmanship moments looming in the next few months. The across-the-board spending cuts that constitute the sequester have only been delayed for two months, and absent new legislation, will start in March. Even more troubling, on March 27 the latest continuing resolution ends and, absent new legislation, all nonessential government programs would have to shut down for lack of funding.
Third, throwing the trillion dollar coin into this mix would not only intensify these two other fights, it would likely poison the well even further in future budget negotiations. With split government, fiscal policy making requires bipartisan agreement. The cliff compromise earned support from both parties, marking a welcome — if brief — respite from partisan politics. The last thing Washington needs is a further escalation in gamesmanship.
Finally, there is a slippery slope from avoiding the debt limit to outright debt monetization. Although proponents see it as a technical fix to a problem that, in their view, never should occur, it means the Treasury would have established a precedent to thwart Congressional limitations on spending and the debt ceiling.
Outside of the legal questions, nothing precludes the Treasury from issuing a coin to pay down the full $16.4 trillion in debt in one fell swoop: true monetization. A trillion dollar coin also would subvert the whole budget process, undermining already fragile public confidence and spooking financial markets. And based on the criteria put forth by the rating agencies, it would represent a stunning failure to devise credible political processes to resolve the longer-term budget issues for the US. A downgrade would very likely follow, in our view.
Besides, imagine the battles over whose portrait belongs on the face.