Ding Dong the Coin Is Dead

I laughed a lot when it was announced that Obama wasn’t going to mint a platinum coin and effectively render the debt ceiling obsolete. And not because I hope for or expect the USA to immediately and chaotically default. Not because I expect the Federal government to not raise the debt ceiling again.

I laughed a lot because the platinum coin was a very, very silly idea. I laughed a lot because there was no clue of any such event taking place. It was a pure myth talked into prominence by Business Insider for pageviews and advertising dollars, and by other bloggers who should have known better.

Bruce Krasting writes that the platinum coin was killed by foreign central banks who thought it would set a dangerous precedent, and ultimately by Ben Bernanke:

It was the Fed, in a message delivered by Bernanke, that caused Obama to back off on any consideration of the Coin. There might have been wiggle room in existing law to print a Coin, but there is nothing that says that the Fed had to take it. And Bernanke said, “No”. When Obama ditched the Coin, he did it because it was no longer an option. Bernanke took the option off the table. The WH statement makes it sound as it it was their decision, that’s just smoke and mirrors.

I don’t even think it got that far.

As I wrote last week:

I think all parties other than the pundits thought the idea was ridiculous and totally unpalatable. For both Obama and Boehner — and especially Bernanke — negotiating a settlement is far, far more attractive than the signals of fiscal disarray that would have been sent by minting the platinum coin. Not to mention that minting a platinum coin and depositing it at the Fed to avert the debt ceiling would have been open to serious legal challenge. Compromise was the order of the day in 2011, and on the fiscal cliff, and it will be the order of the day on the debt ceiling again.

The people who advocated for the platinum coin were mostly doing so because they don’t like compromise. They wanted their side to effectively steamroller the other side into total submission. Right or wrong, that’s not how politics works. A deal will be done. It may not be a deal that Krugman, or Weisenthal, or Boehner, or Obama or Ron Paul or the country in general really likes, though.

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The Platinum Coin

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Is this how the debt ceiling issue will be resolved?

Last year, Republicans in Congress resisted lifting the debt ceiling until the last minute — and then only in exchange for spending cuts. Panic ensued. So what happens if there’s another showdown this year?

Enter the platinum coins. Thanks to an odd loophole in current law, the U.S. Treasury is technically allowed to mint as many coins made of platinum as it wants and can assign them whatever value it pleases.

Under this scenario, the U.S. Mint would produce (say) a pair of trillion-dollar platinum coins. The president orders the coins to be deposited at the Federal Reserve. The Fed then moves this money into Treasury’s accounts. And just like that, Treasury suddenly has an extra $2 trillion to pay off its obligations for the next two years — without needing to issue new debt. The ceiling is no longer an issue.

It seems to be entirely in accordance with the letter (if not the spirit) of the law. So while it is more likely that Boehner and Obama (the Boner-Droner connection) will work something out (as they did on the “fiscal cliff”, and in 2011 on the debt ceiling), the Platinum Coin Option is the ace up Obama’s sleeve if negotiations break down.

I don’t think it would have any real immediate effects different to just raising the debt ceiling through an Act of Congress. It is just opening a loophole to continue doing what America has been doing for the last four years (and Japan for the last twenty) — aggressively offsetting the private debt deleveraging with public debt.

The American government is a strange, multi-headed creature. One of its (partially private) heads — the Federal Reserve — retains the exclusive right (delegated from the Treasury by an Act of Congress) to create money. The rest of the American government pretends to be revenue-constrained, and subject to a debt ceiling.

This is obviously a charade. If one part of the government is not subject to a debt ceiling, then none of the government is subject to a debt ceiling. Loopholes — whether they are platinum coins, or something else — can be found.

The key component of any fiat system is trust. What the Platinum Coin Option would demonstrate is a lack of coherency and a state of fiscal disarray, which could easily in the longer term lead to a loss of trust, and further moves — beyond those already initiated by the BRIC nations — away from the dollar as a reserve currency.