Monday, October 10

Default Myth Busting: Sorry Simon and James, the U.S. is not a Default Virgin

Professor Simon Johnson and James Kwak of The Baseline Scenario have an article at Vanity Fair about the geopolitical importance of credit in late-18th century France, Great Britain, and (especially) the United States. Their article, however, fails to mention an important detail which also happens to contradict their claim that "the (U.S.) federal government would always honor its debt".

The consolidation/conversion of U.S. revolutionary state debt into federal debt, which took place in the early 1790s, and which the authors refer to in the paragraph prior to the above quote, represented a U.S. sovereign default. (For more on this event see Reinhart and Rogoff (click on the U.S. tab) or Sylla, et al, which describes the 'haircut' bondholders received (6% to 4%).)

The notion that the U.S. has never defaulted has unfortunately been repeated often enough that, like the incorrect claim that TARP was "profitable", otherwise well-informed people have come to believe it.

In terms of other U.S. defaults, Reinhart and Rogoff also count Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 prohibition on owning gold and the subsequent devaluation of the U.S. dollar vs. gold as a default.

It's not very surprising to see Vice President Biden promoting the myth that the U.S. has never defaulted (in his case following a visit to the U.S.'s largest creditor, China). Professor Johnson, however, should know better.

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