First a little history.
April 3, 1979
The House of Representatives today approved an increase in the national debt's ceiling to $830 billion...ending a threat that the nation would default on its bills for the first time in history.
There have been previous crises over the debt ceiling...This time, the situation was more serious because the technical elements of debt management became more embroiled in the political controversy over a balanced budget...
The bill approved today did not go as far as Republicans had wanted in legislating a balanced budget...Representative Barber B. Conable of upstate New York...said, "All we want is to create a little presumption in favor of a balanced budget."
" U.S. Debt Ceiling Raised; Threats of Default Ended," By CLYDE H. FARNSWORTH New York Times Apr 3, 1979; pg. A12
March 29, 1996
After the Republican leadership threatened for six months to prevent the United States from borrowing billions of dollars more to keep the Government running, today's votes to raise the Federal debt ceiling were a strategic victory for Treasury Secretary Rubin. Mr. Rubin had warned for months that the Republicans were threatening the Government's credit rating. Several of the...leading credit-rating agencies agreed with him, warning investors that the political gridlock could interfere with the Government's ability to repay them.
Initially, Republican leaders dismissed Mr. Rubin's warnings as scare tactics. Some freshman Republican members even talked about impeaching the Treasury Secretary for taking a number of extraordinary steps...to keep the government afloat while Republicans tried to force President Clinton to make concessions.
"Brinksmanship to Victory," By DAVID E. SANGER New York Times Mar 29, 1996; pg. B11
It seems, therefore, that the contemporary standoff over the debt ceiling isn't novel. Bargaining theory suggest that both sides in these discussions have incentive to commit to extreme positions. The Republicans need to convince the administration that someone is willing to push the U.S. into default. The Republican leadership thus has strong incentive to push people with extreme views to center stage. The administration needs to convince the Republican leadership that defaulting would be far, far worse for them than a tax increase. The administration thus has incentive to paint the consequences of a technical default as financial apocalypse. Pegging yourself to the extreme is the only way to avoid being driven to your least preferred outcome.
In the past, both sides have found a way to walk back from the extremes and find agreement somewhere in between. Typically this agreement occurs at the zero hour. Why would it come earlier? Of course, past performance in no way guarantees future results, as they say, so things may turn out different this time around. But even if agreement proves elusive, financial apocalypse need not be the result. Indeed, I am puzzled by how people can be so certain about the consequences of an event that has never occurred. Moreover, these doomsday scenarios are hard to reconcile with the little bit of evidence that we do have.
The two observation we have to draw on suggest a more moderate conclusion. In late March and early April 1979, technical problems caused the Treasury to default on a few T-bills. According to the only published paper (gated) to have studied this episode, interest rates on T-bills rose by 60 basis points. The authors assert that this increase was permanent (or at least persistent). This sounds big; in fact it constituted a six percent increase in borrowing costs--rates on T-bills rose from 9.1 to 9.7 percent. Were this to occur today, a six percent increase of the current 3-month T-bill rate would raise borrowing costs by... nothing (.06 x 0 = 0). This seems anti-apocalyptic.
A similar analysis of the 1995-96 standoff (ungated) reached a very similar conclusion. This study explored whether bond markets anticipated default in the spring of 1996 and thus imposed a risk premium. They find evidence of such a risk premium, but find also that the premium was largest for 3-month bills, smaller for 6-month bills, and non-existent for 12-month bills. The authors concluded that these findings might suggest that although "the market is concerned about the budget crisis in the near future, it also believes the standoff will not stretch out into the distant future" (page 262). In other words, markets might distinguish between a sovereign default caused by massive over-borrowing and collapsing export revenues (where the likelihood of being made whole is zero) and a technical default by the United States (where the likelihood of not being made whole is zero).
What seems to have happened in the past, then, is that political deadlock in debt ceiling negotiations leads markets to charge slightly higher interest rates when they lend to the US government. This seems reasonable. It also seems quite far from a doomsday scenario. Does this very slender evidence speak directly to current affairs? One can't know. However, markets don't seem to be spooked, at least not by the American situation. One would think that we would see some sign of impending doom. Higher interest rates at auctions? Sharply falling bond prices in secondary markets? No, instead we see negative yields on US T-bills of less than 3 months. Markets are so concerned about US default that they are willing to pay the US government for the privilege of holding US debt. Perhaps we are still too far from the event to expect a market reaction. Perhaps as Treasury's cash runs down and agreement remains elusive, markets will begin to stir and the world will collapse. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, we might contemplate the purpose of a reputation. The US can borrow at negative interest rates not because it never faces obstacles to repayment, but because it makes its creditors whole in spite of any obstacles it faces. And it might well be precisely this determination to make its creditors whole that prevents a bargaining stalemate over the debt ceiling from precipitating financial doomsday.