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美国债务上限难题:先还债,还是先发社保

Cyrus Sanati 2013年10月11日

美国债务上限问题悬而未决,但美国政府手头的现金已经捉襟见肘,撑不了多长时间。资金有限,但要花钱的地方太多了。到底是先把钱还给中国这些持有美国国债的大债主,还是优先用来给国内靠社保过日子的老奶奶,奥巴马犯愁了。

    触及债务上限并非世界末日——至少它不会马上到来。如果美国国会议员在10月17日最终期限过后仍然争执不休,很可能出现的情况就是美国政府靠现金支撑一个月左右,然后就必须开始做出艰难的抉择。如果这种情况延续到12月份,大家就不用惦记今年的圣诞节了。

    共和党人在最近的预算论战中一直信誓旦旦地说他们不会把债务上限当做迫使奥巴马政府让步的谈判筹码。的确,他们愿意让政府关门,而且上周他们已经这样做了,但他们不愿意因为自己拒绝提高债务上限而让美国违约。但就在刚刚过去的这个周末,众议院议长约翰•博纳在美国广播公司(ABC)的This Week节目上说“众议院投票的目的不是为了通过一个明确的债务上限”,这番言论激化了这场论战。博纳还说:“总统不跟我们对话,这样做是在冒违约的风险。”周二,奥巴马做出反击。他表示,今年民主党参议员曾19次尝试和共和党人商讨预算,但都遭到了拒绝。

    在这场和奥巴马政府的长期博弈中,共和党方面此时加码的原因还不清楚。这可能是博纳议长保留颜面的举动,目的是想让奥巴马政府接受本方在预算问题上做出较小的让步,这样他就不至于一败涂地。无论出于什么原因,违约风险本身就已经让本周的华尔街打了个哆嗦,美国股市遭遇重挫,美国国债收益率则小幅上升。周二,体现股市波动幅度的VIX指数升至20以上,表明市场真的有了顾虑。

    如果未能及时提高债务上限,很难说会出现什么样的局面,因为这种情况前所未有。实际上,自1917年设立以来,美国国会已经73次投票同意提高政府债务上限。但考虑到政府债务即将达到17万亿美元(104.47万亿元人民币)这个难以维继的高水平,再加上共和党内部意见不统一,第74次投票可能会变得非常有意思。

    那么,如果美国政府在10月17日触及债务上限,会出现什么样的情况呢?财政部的“支票账户”里还会剩下300亿美元(1843.5亿元人民币),四处都会充斥着恐慌气氛。有些人认为,财政部可能会把这些资金首先用在比较“重要”的方面,同时暂缓那些不太重要的支出,直到国会恢复神智,提高债务上限。比如,财政部可能会决定发放退伍军人福利,但暂时不给现役部队拨款。

    但谁来决定哪些事情比较重要呢?不是财政部。已经有人指出,由财政部进行选择是非法行为,他们不会这样做。无论怎样,就算有这样的想法,财政部也可能无法采取这样的行动,原因是作为美国政府的出纳机构,财政部显然没办法在支付对象和支付时间方面实现差异化运作。这就好比你的支票账户每天都需要自动支付8000万笔款项,停止一千笔付款都很难,更不用说数百万笔了。人们可能觉得政府的支付系统会比较完善,但显然这个系统只是在机械地运转。幸好,向美国国债持有人支付利息的是另一套支付系统,所以从理论上讲政府可以把这笔付款安排在其他所有要支付的款项之前。虽然先支付债券利息、而不是老年人社保可能不合法或者不道德,但它可以避免美国国债违约。

    当然,只要未能及时向任何一位债权人付款,从技术上讲美国政府就已经违约——无论对方是堪萨斯州没能领到社保的老奶奶,还是持有美国国债的中国政府。但华尔街和白宫说到自己所担心的政府“违约”时,他们想到的不是那位老奶奶(尽管他们应该想到她)。相反,他们担心的是市场陷入混乱,同时导致所谓的“经济复苏”果实化为乌有。他们担心的是如果不能向一、两名债券持有人支付利息,美国政府就无法继续以合理的利率发行债券。

    Breaching the debt ceiling wouldn't be the end of the world -- at least not right away. If Washington continues to squabble past the October 17th deadline the country could probably hold things together using cash for about a month or so before it had to start making the hard decisions. But if this thing goes on into December, you can just forget about Christmas this year.

    Throughout the recent budget debate in Washington, the Republicans have sworn up and down that they would not use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip to win concessions from the Obama administration. Sure, they would shut the government down, as they did last week, but they wouldn't allow the U.S. to default on its commitments by refusing to raise the debt limit. But this past weekend, House Speaker John Boehner escalated the budget fight saying on ABC's This Week, that "the votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit." He followed up, saying that "the president is risking default by not having a conversation with us." On Tuesday President Obama shot back saying that Senate Democrats have tried to discuss the budget with Republicans 19 times this year but were rejected.

    It is unclear why the Republicans upped the stakes in their long-standing poker game with the Obama administration. It could be a face-saving move by the speaker to get the administration to agree to smaller budget concessions, so that he wouldn't have to walk away totally defeated. Whatever the reason, the mere threat of a U.S. default caused Wall Street to shiver a bit this week, with stocks taking a dive and Treasury yields edging upwards. On Tuesday the VIX volatility index moved above 20, suggesting that the markets have become officially worried.

    It is hard to say for sure what could occur if the government failed to raise the debt limit in time as it has never happened before. Indeed, Congress has successfully voted to raise the debt limit a total of 73 times since it was created in 1917. But with the nation's debt approaching an unsustainably high $17 trillion and with the Republican Party fragmented, the 74th time could be the charm.

    So what happens on October 17th and the government has hit the debt ceiling? The Treasury has $30 billion left in its "checking account" and panic roams the streets. Some believe the Treasury could prioritize its spending to pay the more "important" things first and put off less important payments until the government comes to its senses and raises the debt ceiling. For example it may choose to pay veterans benefits but put off paying active duty troops.

    But who is to say what is more important? Not the Treasury. It has said that it is illegal for them to pick and choose winners and that they wouldn't do it. In any case, it probably couldn't even do it if it wanted to as the government's check writing machine apparently has no way of differentiating who it is paying and when. It's as if you had 80 million automatic debits in your checking account every single day – it would be hard to stop a thousand of them, but millions? One would think that the government would have a more sophisticated payment network but apparently it just works on autopilot. Luckily, interest payments made to those holding Treasury bonds are on a separate payment system, so in theory the government could prioritize those payments over all others. While it might be illegal or unethical to prioritize interest payments over, say, social security checks to the elderly, it would avoid the nation defaulting on its bonds.

    To be sure, the government would technically be in default the second it delays payment to any of its creditors -- whether it be your grandma in Kansas who didn't receive her social security check or the People's Republic of China who didn't receive the interest on its cache of U.S. Treasury bonds. But when Wall Street and the White House say they are worried about a government "default" they aren't thinking about grandma (though they should); rather, they are worried about the markets going haywire and crushing what's left of the so-called "economic recovery." If the U.S. misses an interest payment or two the fear is that the government won't be able to issue more debt at reasonable rates.

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