Never mind New Year’s Eve — Monday is Debt Ceiling Day! According to the best guesstimate by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the federal government on Monday will reach its statutory borrowing limit of $16.4 trillion — or roughly 104 percent of America’s total economic output.
A legal limit on federal debt was first enacted during World War I and has been increased 13 times since 1995. The most recent increase came after a major political battle in the summer of 2011 — a conflict that also led Standard & Poor’s to strip the United States of its AAA credit rating.
Now we’re back up against it again, thanks to a year when Uncle Sam spent more than $1.3 trillion more than he took in.
Don’t worry, it won’t be Debt Default Eve. Treasury’s bean-counters still have a few tricks up their sleeves. With some clever financial futzing, Geithner says his department can “temporarily postpone the date that the United States would otherwise default on its legal obligations.”
He reckons Treasury can probably squeeze out another two months and $200 billion through moves such as suspending payments into the government-employee pension fund, dipping into a special fund infrequently used to stabilize the dollar or even selling off the nation’s gold reserves.
But then what? March madness in the financial markets if Democrats and Republicans can’t agree to raise the ceiling, perhaps in the current round of fiscal-cliff talks?
Certainly it would be very bad if the US missed a debt payment. Last year, Geithner said a default would “inflict catastrophic, far-reaching damage on our nation’s economy, significantly reducing growth and increasing unemployment.”
True enough, but that isn’t the real risk here —