Beat Up Your Favorite News Reporter, What Would It Mean for the U.S. to be Unable to Pay Its Debt?

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Tuesday, 02 August 2011 04:33

Okay boys and girls, this stuff about a credit downgrade has gone far enough. We know that all the important people in Washington and on Wall Street are warning us about the possibility that the credit rating agencies will downgrade the U.S. government if we don't reduce the debt to their standards. But what could this possibly mean?

The U.S. debt is denominated in dollars. The government issues dollars. Do Moody's and Standard and Poor's think that there will be some point in the future where the government will not be able to issue dollars?

Let's say this so that even a reporter with an elite news outlet can understand it. Suppose I issue IOUs that are payable in Dean Baker IOUs. What is the likelihood that I will ever default on my IOUs?

That's right, unless I lose the ability to write, the probability is zero. There is a possibility that at some point that Dean Baker IOUs will lose some of their value (i.e. inflation) because I have issued so many of them. However the credit rating agencies are not in the business of making inflation predictions. They certainly don't have any obvious expertise in this area.

Furthermore, if a debt downgrade for the U.S. is simply a forecast for higher inflation, then the debt downgrade must apply to every debt issue denominated in dollars. In other words, if U.S. debt loses 30 percent of its value because of higher than expected inflation, then so will dollar denominated debt issued by General Electric, AT&T, or the government of Israel.

In other words, if the concern really is higher inflation, then the credit rating agencies must be considering downgrading all debt denominated in dollars. But, they have not threatened every issuer of dollar denominated debt with a credit downgrade, so this must not be what they mean.

So, what does the threat of a credit downgrade mean? The reporters should be asking this question and giving us the answer. This is their job.