The Rising Cost of Insuring Against US Government Debt

“Let me distinguish between professional politicians and the public at large,” opined the president during a press conference yesterday.

“The public is not paying close attention to the ins and outs of how a Treasury auction goes…

Move along, nothing to see here…

“We’re paid to worry about it.”

Never mind professional politicians are the reason we have a debt problem in the first place.

So you have a choice today, dear reader: Follow the president’s advice and don’t worry about the backdoor debt ceiling deal they’re cooking up inside the Beltway… or read on and prepare yourself for the consequences of what the “professional politicians” have wrought.

“I’d love to see the size of the US bubble,” a reader writes after yesterday’s issue, “and where it would fit on the debt-to-GDP chart.  Can you add that [your next post]?”

Yes, it’s big bubble indeed. In fact, it spills past the margins of the chart we shared with you yesterday. Here, we’ve superimposed a yellow circle representing the United States:

CDS Protection Against US and Eurozone Defaults

The US national debt is 5.5 times that of Italy – the largest debt in the eurozone and the cause of so much consternation in the markets this week.

But the real story lies in the center of the yellow circle on this chart.

First, check out the bottom scale, plotting each nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio: With a $14.3 trillion national debt and a $14.7 trillion economy, the US debt-to-GDP ratio is just shy of 100% – near Portugal-Italy territory, though not as bad as Greece.

Then there’s the left scale: credit default swaps – the “insurance policies” paid by the buyers of these nations’ government debt to cover themselves in the event of a default.

The total amount of US credit default swaps outstanding is low, relative to many European countries. But at $4.58 billion, it’s nearly the same amount of credit default swaps outstanding on Lehman Bros. in 2008.

As you might recall, roughly $4.5 billion in default swaps was enough to wipe out AIG, then the world’s largest global insurance firm… with the requisite unassailable record.

Perhaps those memories are weighing on the minds of credit default swap traders. The higher the cost of a credit default swap, the higher the implied risk.

The cost of insuring against US government debt, while still low, has grown significantly since mid-May.

As of yesterday, it was 50 basis points – one-half of 1%:

Cost of Credit Default Swaps on US Treasuries

By this reckoning, Uncle Sam is a worse bet than Germany now.

The rise in the price of US CDS coincides with the drama in Washington over raising the Aug. 2 debt ceiling deadline.

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, tax revenue for the 29 days of August after the 2nd will total roughly $172.4 billion. That compares to $306.7 billion in spending.

Ordinarily, the Treasury would cover that $134.3 billion gap by issuing new Treasury debt. But after Aug. 2, it won’t be able to do so. That means Uncle Sam would have to immediately balance his books.

What would that look like?

Well, he’d have to choose his priorities. The Bipartisan Policy Center report breaks down the government’s Aug. 3-31 expenses in a way that shows what the $172.4 billion in revenue can cover… and what it can’t.

Treasury to Choose Which Bills to Pay

The Social Security checks would still be cut… but not income tax refunds. Medicare and Medicaid would be kept going… but not food stamps. Military contractors would still be paid… but not the troops.

They can move certain items above the $172.4 billion line and others below it… but something has to give.

And as we pointed out yesterday, matters are even worse than that list of priorities reveals.

About $507.4 billion in existing Treasury securities come due between Aug. 3-31.  To “roll over” that debt, the Treasury must issue new securities.

If the unthinkable happens, and the government isn’t able to “roll over” the debt?

$100 billion of that debt matures on Aug. 4. Another $100 billion matures a week later, on Aug. 11. That eats up the entire $172.4 billion in revenue expected for the month right there… before the government spends a penny on anything.

Unless the Treasury Department is sitting on some slush fund we don’t know about, it’s game over. The United States defaults… triggering those credit default swaps.

“Let’s imagine,” said a Newsweek piece by Daniel Gross last spring, “a world in which the US government, lacking the will to tax or cut spending, can’t scrape up the cash to stay current on interest payments and can’t roll over debt as it matures.

“That would trigger a huge decline in the value of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities. The balance sheet of every US financial institution – JPMorgan, Goldman, Citi, your neighborhood bank, the Federal Reserve, money-market funds – would be decimated. There wouldn’t be a single solvent bank, insurer, or company in the United States.

“The large multinational banks, which have significant US operations and plenty of this stuff on their books, would likewise be wiped out. Oh, and foreign holders of US debt… would be toast, too.

“In this dystopia, who, precisely, would be able to make good on the insurance sold on US government debt? The last time we had a set of events that were supposed to trigger large-scale payment of credit-default swaps, the system basically shut down. All the investors who bought insurance on financial instruments from AIG got paid off in full only because the US government bailed the company out.

“Who would bail out the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve?”

Who, indeed?

Addison Wiggin
for The Daily Reckoning