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How default would harm homeowners, cities, businesses and everyone else

By Ezra Klein,

FRANK FRANKLIN II It’s easy to understand why the government will have more trouble borrowing if it fails to pay its debts, or even has a difficult time paying its debts. It’s a bit harder to see why ordinary Americans, the city of Pittsburgh, hospitals in Iowa, and medium-sized corporations will have more trouble borrowing. But they will. And their trouble borrowing is the main channels through which a default, or even something too close to it for the market’s comfort, could deal a body blow to the economy.

On Wednesday, Moody’s warned that it was putting the U.S. government credit rating on review for a downgrade. But they didn’t stop there. Another 7,000 debt products that are “directly linked to the U.S. government or are otherwise vulnerable to sovereign risk” were also put on review for a possible downgrade. That’s about $130 billion worth of debt. If America tumbles, so do they. But Moody’s still wasn’t done. An unknown amount of “indirectly linked” debt is also getting reviewed.

If America’s credit rating falls, it’s taking a lot more than just Treasury securities with it. It’s going to take the whole credit market with it. Which, as you’ll remember, is exactly how the subprime housing sector took the economy down in 2008.

The first to fall will be “directly linked” debt. These are bonds that rely on payments from the federal government. Naomi Richman, a managing director in Moody’s Public Finance division, puts it bluntly: “There are certain kinds of municipal bonds that are directly reliant on Treasury paying or some other direct payment,” she says. “If those bonds don't receive their payment, they have no other source of revenue.” So down they go.

Then there’s the “indirectly linked” debt. That’s debt from state government, local governments, hospitals, universities and other institutions that rely, in some way or another, on payments from the federal government. If Medicaid stops paying its bills, all the hospitals that rely on Medicaid’s payments become less creditworthy. If we stop funding Pell grants, then all the universities that enroll students who pay using financial aid become less creditworthy. And since the federal government passes one-fifth of its revenues through to the states, and the states pass those revenues through to cities, if the federal government stops paying its bills, all states and all cities are suddenly in worse financial shape, which will make it harder for them to get loans.

And then there’s everything else. Mortgages. Credit cards. Loans that businesses take out to expand. Much of the debt in the American economy, and in fact globally, is “benchmarked” to Treasury debt. When your bank quotes you a mortgage rate, the calculation begins with the rate on 10-year treasuries and then adds premiums for various types of risk specific to you and your area on top of that. “There’s a whole credit structure,” says Pete Davis, president of Davis Capital Investment Ideas. “Think of it as roads and bridges, but it’s finance, it’s all connected, and it’s all on top of treasuries. Your CD at a bank, your credit card interest rates, your car loans, your mortgages — that’s all built on Treasury rates. So when you shake the basis of it, everything on top of it shakes, too.”

The 2008 economic crisis wasn’t started by a nuclear bomb detonating in New York, or a campaign to sabotage the country’s factories, or a plague that struck our able-bodied young males. Rather, investors bought a lot of debt based on subprime mortgages. They performed some tricky financial wizardry that they thought made the debt low-risk. They found out they were wrong. And then, because the players in the financial system no longer knew how much money anyone had, the credit markets froze and the economy crashed.

Now imagine that happening, not with the housing market, but with the government of the United States of America. The cornerstone of the global financial economy is the idea that Treasuries are risk-free. If they’re not, then like in the financial crisis, no one knows how much money anyone who holds treasuries has. But they also don’t know how much money anyone who depends on the federal government — be they businesses or individuals — holds.

This is how a default gets into the rest of the economy: It takes everything the financial markets thought they could know and rely on and upends it. It then shuts off credit, or makes it prohibitively expensive, for nearly every participant in the economy, from states and cities to hospitals and universities to homebuyers and credit-card applicants. That, in turn, freezes all of their activity, which destabilizes everyone who relies on them, which then destabilizes financial markets further, and so on.

It was one thing to have forgotten that this sort of thing could happen in 2006, when America hadn’t seen it for 70 years. But we just went through it. And if we go through it again, the Federal Reserve, which has pushed interest rates as low as they can go, and Congress, which has vastly expanded the deficit, have a lot less ammunition left for a response.

Are we likely to get to that point? No, of course not. But between here and there are worlds where the economy doesn’t crash, but because the federal government panics the market, interest rates rise and the economy slows. In a recovery this weak, that would be a disaster. And it would be entirely of our own making.

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