There are two ways in which a national government can default on its publicly-held debt obligations. The first – and the one that caught the attention of markets and rating agencies during the debate over the debt ceiling – is that of declining to honor interest rate obligations on Treasury bills, notes and bonds. This approach usually is confined to Third World banana republics. Sometimes, as in the case of Argentina, the Third World country that pursues such a policy once was a First World country that allowed itself to be seduced into socialism. And that is what S & P rightly worried about when downgrading the U.S. debt from its former triple A rating.
Autocrats and Democrats alike tend to shy away from direct debt default because it is so blatant and because it inevitably drives would-be creditors away from future government note issues. Politicians of any mode are far from easily-shamed – the profession attracts the most unscrupulous genes of any generation – but outright debt-default tends to be the preferred choice of only a minority even of that shameless caste. Fortunately for those who love to run up unsustainable debt, another route to salvation beckons.
Inflation is the second route to debt default. It is the preferred route followed by governments of all kinds – from the Imperial dynasties of Ancient China, from the Ancient Republics of Greece and Rome, from the Roman Empire, from the Divine Right monarchs of Europe, from the parliamentary democracies that followed, from the socialist republics that paid lip-service to Karl Marx, and last, but surely not least, from the constitutional republic of the United States.
Treasury notes – with the small exception of those indexed to the inflation rate itself – are note obligations that commit government to making fixed periodic payments until the note matures. Inflation erodes the real value of that nominal commitment. Inflation constitutes theft by government inflicted on any naive investor who choses to trust its word. Once inflation is afoot, wary investors price it in, and the government has to increase its nominal commitments accordingly. By shifting the rate of inflation upwards over time, an unscrupulous government can continue to steal, at least until the fraud collapses into hyper-inflation.
Inflation-theft works better at lower rates of inflation than at higher, because perceptions of theft remain subdued. Therefore, when observable inflation rates are low – as at the present time – the temptation to steal is greatest. Members of the Federal Reserve are now showing signs of cashing in on this window of vulnerability:
In an interview with CNBC, Charles Evans of the Chicago Fed said that he would ‘favour more accommodation’ and became the first policymaker on the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee explicitly to countenance letting inflation rise above the Fed’s target of 2 per cent in the short term. ‘If 1 per cent was not a catastrophe, 3 per cent is not a catastrophe,’ said Mr. Evans.” Robin Harding, ‘Top Fed member in plea for stimulus’, Financial Times, August 31, 2011
You had better watch your back, Mr. Bernanke. The politicians in Washington will love to hear Mr. Evans’ message. Mr. Evans for Fed Chairman, anyone, when Ben Bernanke’s second terms expires? Unless, of course, Mr. Bernanke astutely concurs with the stealth debt default proposal now emanating from within the belly of the Fed.