In its battle against the financial crisis, the U.S. government has extended its full faith and credit to an ever-growing swath of the private sector: first homeowners, then banks, now car companies. Soon, President-elect Barack Obama will put the government credit card to work with a massive fiscal boost for the economy. Necessary as these steps are, they raise a worry of their own: Can the United States pay the money back?
By Greg Ip
The Washington Post
The notion seems absurd: Banana republics default, not the world’s biggest, richest economy, right? The United States has unparalleled wealth, a stable legal tradition, responsible macroeconomic policies and a top-notch, triple-A credit rating. U.S. Treasury bonds are routinely called “risk-free,” and the United States has the unique privilege of borrowing in the currency that other countries like to hold as foreign-exchange reserves.
Yes, default is unlikely. But it is no longer unthinkable. Thanks to the advent of credit derivatives — financial contracts that allow investors to speculate on or protect against default — we can now observe how likely global markets think it is that Uncle Sam will renege on America’s mounting debts. Last week, markets pegged the probability of a U.S. default at 6 percent over the next 10 years, compared with just 1 percent a year ago. For technical reasons, this is not a precise reading of investors’ views. Nonetheless, the trend is real, and it is grounded in some pretty fundamental concerns.