Saturday, May 12, 2018

On Leveraging the U.S. Debt-Ceiling: How the Market Mechanism Handles Trust

On May 9 2011, U.S. House Speaker Boehner insisted “on trillions of dollars in spending cuts, and no tax increases, as the price for rounding up enough votes to allow more borrowing and prevent the country from defaulting on its debt,” according to the Huffington Post. The Ohio Republican had “said failure to increase the borrowing limit [in the summer of 2011] would trigger a financial disaster for the United States and the world.” On May 12th in Congressional testimony, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, cautioned against using raising the debt ceiling as leverage for getting a particular partisan policy-prescription on federal spending enacted into law. Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker had told Reuters, “I do share the chairman’s concern that going up to the edge and playing chicken on the debt ceiling is not a wise strategy.”
Meanwhile, GOP U.S. Senators and House Representatives had been hearing from constituents warning them not to raise the debt ceiling.  “Enough is enough!” such citizens were saying. This pressure was geared to getting the U.S. Government to live closer to its means rather than resorting to its power to increase the debt it can issue without limit. Even so, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on May 10th that tax increases may be needed, along with spending cuts, to help rein in the deficit. Moreover, he warned against ultimatums. “We shouldn’t be drawing lines in the sand,” he said according to The Wall Street Journal. This was not stopping Sen. Bob Corker, who was urging an automatic spending cap of 20.6% of GNP (when the fiscal 2011 figure was estimated at 24.3%) as a condition of passing an increase in the federal debt limit.
Given the existence of contending policy prescriptions, using default for leverage on one side is faulty. Aside from the implicit presumption that one side of the debate has a monopoly on truth, playing with fire where the viability of the financial system itself could hang in the balance does not evince much statesmanship and it could imperil the operation of the market mechanism itself.
Trust is vital in the very nature of a market. If trust is up for grabs, the increased volatility can freeze the market mechanism itself. Rather than simply increasing a price to account for the added risk, a market mechanism can simply close down even if trust is questioned. The reason is that the mechanism reflects human nature itself. Trust does not behave along a continuum as does risk/reward. Rather, people trust someone or something only to a point at which an implicit “all or none” mental calculation or feeling occurs. Beyond that point, the picture itself is fundamentally different. A shift in risk/return does not come into play because fear is choking off any action. In other words, human beings in fear or lack of trust freeze up rather than slow down. The market mechanism’s interval of risk/return tradeoffs reflecting in adjusting price is inconsistent with this feature of human nature as manifested even in a market mechanism. There is thus a fundamental flaw in the mechanism where it diverges from how human nature reacts to fear as lack of trust.
According to Alan Greenberg, former Chair and CEO of Bear Stearns, “Without reciprocal trust between the parties to any securities transaction, the money stops. Doubt fills the vacuum, and credit and liquidity are the chief casualties. Bad news . . . has an alarming capacity to become contagious and self-perpetuating. No problem is an isolated problem” (Greenberg, p. 3). Money simply stopping trumps price adjusting to reflect the increased risk from less trust because trust in human terms does not function as intervals of degrees. Accordingly, market theory itself, specifically in its risk/return tradeoff running the gambit, contains a flaw with respect to increased levels of volatility due to “trust issues.”
In using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip for political leverage, the Republican lawmakers in the U.S. Government were risking the flaw being triggered. In other words, those politicians were implicitly assuming that the market would simply adjust to the added risk rather than shut down. Besides the problem in the lack of statesmanship—a political problem—the market mechanism itself contains a fundamental flaw in need of being addressed. Specifically, higher risk that kicks in even just close to the lack-of-trust-threshold can freeze the mechanism itself due to how human nature handles trust as a more of an “all or none” than “matter of degrees” phenomenon even as we wrongly suppose the market handles trust along an interval of prices. Unfortunately, we love the beauty of the latter even after having realized in September of 2008 that it does not hold.


Alan C. Greenberg, The Rise and Fall of Bear Stearns (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Janet Hock and Carol E. Lee, “Democrats Oppose Spending Cap Plan,” The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2011, p. A4.