Oct. 17 is the debt-ceiling deadline. But it’s not the day we default.

October 16, 2013

As Congress scrambles to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling, there's a bit of confusion about the timing here. The date Oct. 17 gets tossed around as a hard deadline. But that's probably not the date when we'll see lots of financial disruptions or missed payments.


Tick, tick, tick. (The Washington Post)

Oct. 17 is simply the day that the Treasury Department runs out of room to maneuver under the statutory debt limit. It's not necessarily the day that the U.S. government starts missing payments if Congress fails to lift the ceiling.

The real crises are likely to occur a little later, some time between Oct. 22 and Nov. 1, though it's hard to pinpoint an exact day. A crisis could come later than that — or even sooner than expected.

If the House and Senate end up passing a bill on Oct. 17 or even Oct. 18, that's probably okay. As a reminder, here's the timeline again:

May 19: The United States hits the debt ceiling. Yes, the U.S. government actually bumped up against its $16.699 trillion borrowing limit five months ago.

Since then, the Treasury Department has taken a slew of “extraordinary measures” — such as tapping exchange-rate funds — to raise more than $300 billion without borrowing and to ensure the government has enough cash to meet all its obligations, from paying bondholders to sending Social Security checks.

Oct. 17. Extraordinary measures end. Oct. 17 isn't necessarily the doomsday date, as Republicans like Bob Corker and Susan Collins have pointed out. It's simply the day when the Treasury Department estimates that all those "extraordinary measures" will run out.

At that point, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the government will have only around $30 billion cash on hand to meet the country's commitments, plus whatever tax money comes in.

This won't necessarily lead to default right away. But it does put the Treasury Department in a precarious situation. "This amount would be far short of net expenditures on certain days, which can be as high as $60 billion," Lew wrote in his letter to Congress.

Oct. 22 – Nov. 1: At some point here, the government likely won't be able to pay all its bills.

The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that at some point between Oct. 22 and Nov. 1, the government won't have enough cash on hand and won't reap enough tax money to cover all of its daily payments. So some of the government's checks will start bouncing.

How catastrophic will that be? It depends what payments the federal government actually misses. If it has to delay some Medicaid payments, that might cause minor disruptions. If the government misses an interest payment on the debt, that could be catastrophic. U.S. debt is supposed to be the safest in the world. A missed payment could upend the financial system.

So the big question here is when, exactly, the government will run out of cash and whether the Treasury Department can prioritize payments at all in order to keep servicing the debt. Here are the big-ticket items that come due between Oct. 18 and Nov. 1:

If you're worried about debt default, there are a few key dates to watch here. The Treasury Department has to make interest payments worth $6 billion on Oct. 30 and $29 billion on Nov. 15. If, for whatever reason, the government doesn't have enough money to make those, financial havoc could ensue.

But Nov. 1 is another key date to watch. The Treasury Department has to make $58 billion in payments for Social Security, Medicare, military pay, and other benefits on that day. Many financial analysts think the government won't have enough cash on hand that day to make those payments. Social Security checks could get delayed up to two weeks as a result. So that's a decent bet for "doomsday."

Could doomsday come before Oct. 22? Possibly!

One caveat: There's all sorts of market turmoil that could occur up even before doomsday strikes. For example: The Treasury Department has to roll over about $302 billion worth of securities on Oct. 17, Oct. 24, and Oct. 31. If the debt ceiling isn't raised before then, there's a risk that buyers of government debt could sit out these three Treasury auctions or demand higher interest rates, which would increase the cost of U.S. borrowing.

Furthermore, the Bipartisan Policy Center says that its estimate for the "X-date" — i.e., the day the government starts missing payments — is only an approximation. Doomsday could come unexpectedly early, depending on the flow of spending through Treasury.

"No one can predict with absolute certainty the date and time when Treasury will have exhausted all its extraordinary measures and run out of cash on hand," write Shai Akabas, Brian Collins and Steve Bell. "Therefore, policymakers should not assume that they have until October 22 to make decisions concerning the federal debt ceiling. "

So it's impossible to pinpoint the exact day that Armageddon will start if the debt ceiling isn't lifted. Doom probably won't materialize right on Oct. 17. It will probably start in late October or early November. But there's always room for error.

Further reading: 

--Absolutely everything you need to know about the debt ceiling.

--Hitting the debt ceiling could be terrible even if we don't default.

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Neil Irwin | October 16, 2013