The platinum coin is killed as America careens toward default

The platinum coin is dead, long live the debt ceiling.

On Saturday evening, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein dropped a bombshell: The platinum coin gambit – the plan to circumvent the American debt ceiling by minting a trillion-dollar coin and depositing it in the Federal Reserve – is dead. Klein writes:

That’s the bottom line of the statement that Anthony Coley, a spokesman for the Treasury Department, gave me today. “Neither the Treasury Department nor the Federal Reserve believes that the law can or should be used to facilitate the production of platinum coins for the purpose of avoiding an increase in the debt limit,” he said.

The Treasury's take on the law is one thing; but the Federal Reserve, as a quasi-independent body, is really what's put the kibosh on the whole plan. If it doesn't believe that using a platinum coin to circumvent the debt limit would be legal, that's it. The lynchpin of the plan was that the Treasury, after using powers granted to it through a loophole in a law intended to let it mint commemorative coins for collectors, would be able to deposit the coin in its account in the Fed. If the Fed won't take it, the plan's bust.

Joe Weisenthal, the most consistent advocate of the platinum coin, points out that it's hard to work out what point of law the Fed was actually trying to apply here:

It seems odd that the Fed would decide that there's some legal tender that it will recognize, and some legal tender that it wouldn't recognize.

Paul Krugman, who became a high-profile advocate of minting the coin last week, asks what the administration's plan is now, but also somewhat unfairly places the blame on Obama. Given the White House's comment to Buzzfeed focuses on the Fed, it seems like they weren't exactly behind the move to pre-emptively remove the bargaining chip from the table.

Regardless, the administration's position now is clear. The debt ceiling must be lifted, and they will offer no "concessions" to do so. With the platinum coin out of the equation – and with the so-called "constitutional option", where the President cites the 14th amendment's command that the validity of the public debt "shall not be questioned" and ignores the debt ceiling, ruled out by the White House last month – the Republicans can be under no illusions that if they fail to concede, America will definitely have a messy government shutdown, and will likely enter technical default on its public debt. The only question that they have to answer is whether they have an ounce of rationality left, or if they'll take the whole system down, themselves included.

Past experience suggests that the latter is worryingly possible. For one thing, conservative economists like John Cochrane have been minimising the effect of hitting the ceiling. Cochrane casts doubt on possibility of default by rightly pointing out that the Treasury has enough income to make debt repayments even if the ceiling is hit. But by ignoring the practical aspects of hitting the ceiling, he bypasses an important point. The treasury pays its bills with a vastly complex, automated system. It is not clear it has the technology to "prioritise" debt repayments, nor is it clear that to do so would be legal.

And even worse, those GOP members who do understand the likelihood of a default aren't too concerned. Politico's Jim Vandehei, Mike Allen and Jake Sherman write:

GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes…

“For too long, the pitch was, we’ll deal with it next time,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a conservative from Utah. He said GOP lawmakers are prepared to shut things down or even default if Obama doesn’t bend on spending. “No one wants to default, but we are not going to continue to give the president a limitless credit card.”

If the US did default on its debt – even just by paying a coupon a day late – the international knock-on effects would be massive, and unprecedented. Now that every option for preventing that has been taken off the table save for negotiating with the most radical congress ever, the financial community may start to take note.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR