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关于美国债务限额,你需要知道什么

提高美国债务限额的“最后期限”又到了,会发生什么事情?

美国是不是又要财政危机了?

华盛顿的政客、权威和券商们都在担心这个问题——一个功能失调的共和党能否成功推动政府提高其债务限额。

在这个问题上,大多数共和党大佬的意见是一致的。比如财政部长史蒂文•努钦、预算管理局局长米克•姆瓦尼、参议院多数党领袖米奇•麦康奈尔、众议院议长保罗•瑞恩等,都呼吁要“干净”地提高债务限额——也就是说,不要加入限制政府支出的一些额外的条条框框。不过还有一些保守派却反对“干净”的债务限额增长,因为他们认为这将带来巨大的影响。比如俄克拉荷马州共和党代表汤米•科尔最近在接受《早安乔》(Morning Joe)节目采访时就表示,众议院有可能不会通过这样一个“干净法案”,并指出“大多数共和党人都希望想办法把债务限额拉得低一点。”

最近,围绕着债务限额的问题,美国政界的舌战不断升温,而美国也快到必须做出决定的时候了——努钦表示,到9月29日,美国就将达到它当前的债务限额了。在此背景下,美国时政杂志《Pacific Standard》 采访了布鲁金斯学会哈钦斯财政货币政策中心主任大卫•韦塞尔,请他解答关于债务限额的有关问题,以及为什么这个问题会引发如此巨大的争议。

让我们先从最基本的问题开始,债务限额到底是什么?

这要从第一次世界大战期间说起。当时,美国国会对政府的借债行为设定了一个限额,现在这个限额已经达到19.8万亿美元了,而且现在财政部已经快碰到这条红线了。由于美国政府的支出超过了收入,所以它只得持续举债填坑。所以现在美国政府又快碰到债务限额的红线了,这也是不能不说是一个问题。

到了9月末,如果美国国会还不提高债务限额,会发生什么?

基本上一旦美国政府的举债达到限额,他们就不能继续借债了。所以他们每天只能收入多少就支出多少。可能某几天政府的收入很多,但某几天收入很少,所以政府就没有足够的钱来付所有的账单,他们就只能有选择地决定先付哪些账单和债务。他们可能会付债务的利息,也可能会发放社会福利金支票,也可能给医保服务的医生发工资,或者是给联邦政府的雇员发薪水,但他们必须要做个选择,也就是要把有限的钱先付给谁。而这样做显然是会有一定的后果的。

后果会是什么样的?

美国国债是世界公认的最安全的债券,也就是所谓的零风险债券。全世界的人都认为它很坚挺,认为它会按时付息。所以首当其冲的后果是,作为我们最大的一笔资产,美国国债的信用会受到质疑。

实际上,它已经影响到券商为美国国债设定的利率了。有些投资人担心,如果到了9月29日左右,美国国债是否可能会延迟付息。所以现在几乎已经有了紧急抛售的现象。如果有些债券的正好是在那个时候付息,肯定是不会有人想持有这些债券的。他们只想持有在这个日子之前或之后付息的债券。从过去的经验中,我们知道,一旦围绕债务限额问题出现争议,美国财政部和纳税人都要付出沉重的代价,由于人们的神经紧张了,他们的举债的成本就会相应地提高。而这仅仅是由于那里有一条红线不能跨过去。所以我认为后果会是相当有破坏性的。

从目前公开的2011年美联储讨论的情况看,针对这种局面,他们曾考虑过优先支付国债的利息,把其他要支付的账单先放一放。但是,这种做法在政治上也是有影响的。想象一下,如果政府对所有拿社保的人说:“你的支票得多等一周才能到,因为国会在搞事情。”后果会是什么样子。

说到优先偿付的问题,现在有种说法颇受自由党团的追捧,他们认为就算美国政府碰到了债务红线,也不是什么大不了的事情,因为财政部事实上可以决定先支付哪些账单。比如他们可以优先偿还债务以避免实际违约。你对这种说法怎么看?

由于这些担忧,很多人都在质疑,如果最坏的结果真的发生了,我们该怎么控制?

然而我们其实并不知道究竟会发生什么,现实要难预料得多。光是财政部无法承担部分相关义务的事实,就足以让人们对联邦政府产生不信任感,不管这些义务是对国债持有人、社保居民、国防承包商还是政府雇员的……联邦政府让我们感到不信任的理由难道还不够多吗?我认为这会带来长期的影响。我不在乎人们抛售比如0.2%的美国国债,但这会使人永远质疑美国政府的可信性。不管是投资人还是普通美国公民都会有这种质疑。

为了防止房子着火,你有一个应急计划是很自然的,但这并不意味着因为你有一个应急计划,你就非得把房子烧了。我认为,所有觉得这个问题不严重的人都在承担很大的风险。

除了自由党团以外,差不多所有人都同意美国政府应提高债务限额。那为什么这个问题还这么有争议?难道不是很容易就可以表决出结果的吗?

这首先是因为华盛顿的功能失调。有些我们认为是自然而然的事情,现在不再是自然而然的了。

对那些想控制政府开支的人,债务限额是必然拿来说事儿的一个问题。以前债务限额往往会拉上很多附加问题,人们都把它当成一个达成自己目标的工具。比如以前有些缩减赤字的机制就曾牵扯上债务限额的问题。民主党人会说:“等等,如果你想让我们下周一提高债务限额,那下周二你们就得通过一些预算决议,给富人大幅减税。这不是意味着我们要借更多的钱吗?为什么我们要通过这种我们不喜欢的政策呢?”

而不少共和党人则会说:“除非我们遇到了某种危机,某种不得不采取行动的情况,否则我们是永远不会同意削减开支的。所以要想让我投票支持提高债务限额,它就必须跟某些削减开支的承诺打包处理,好让我也能喊一喊削减开支的口号。”这样一来,它就成了人们追逐自己的财政目标的工具。

这种现象已经屡见不鲜了,只不过现在情况更紧张了些,而且走向也更加不可预测。

你认为国会能否及时解决这个问题?

是的,在最后关头,他们是能解决的。我的预测是,他们会在我们到达违约的时间点前提高债务限额。他们会找到某种方法这样做的。要么是跟某些东西打包,好获得足够的共和党选票,要么是做得足够“干净”,好赢得民主党的选票。

而这恰好提醒了很多人这件事有多愚蠢。国会已经投票同意花钱了,这就好比你花了信用卡里的钱,等信用卡账单来了,你却说:“反正我是不会还的。”

为长度和清晰起见,本采访稿有删节。

本文最初以《关于债务限额,你需要知道什么》为题发表于时政杂志《Pacific Standard》的合作网站。您可以订阅该网站的新闻,或在Twitter上关注该杂志,以支持这一关注公共利益的媒体。

译者:贾政景

Is the United States headed for another financial fiasco?

In Washington, D.C., politicians, pundits, and bond traders are starting to worryabout that very question—whether a dysfunctional GOP will be able to successfully increase the limit on the the amount of money that the United States government can borrow (more popularly known as “raising the debt ceiling”).

Most of the Republican bigwigs seem to be in unison on the issue: Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, Director of the Office of Budget and Management Mick Mulvaney, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Speaker Paul Ryan have all called for a “clean” debt ceiling increase—that is, one without any additional provisions curbing government spending. But several other conservatives have come out against a clean bill, which could have huge ramifications: Representative Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) told the hosts of Morning Joe that the House of Representatives is unlikely to pass a clean bill, noting that “[m]ost Republicans want to do something to lower the trajectory of the debt.”

With the battle heating up and the deadline for action fast approaching—Mnuchin says the country will hit its current limit by September 29th—Pacific Standard asked David Wessel, the director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution, to answer some of our questions about the debt ceiling and why it’s become such a controversial topic.

Let’s start with the basics. What is the debt ceiling?

This dates back to World War I, when Congress set a limit on the amount of money that the government can borrow. That limit is now $19.8 trillion, and the Treasury is bumping up against it. Because the government spends more than it takes in, it has to borrow the difference on an ongoing basis, so it’s a bit of a problem they’re bumping up against the ceiling.

And what will happen at the end of September if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling?

Basically what happens is, once they hit the debt ceiling, and they can’t borrow anymore, they can only spend as much money as they take in on any given day. Some days they take in a lot of money, some days they don’t. So they won’t have enough money coming in to pay all the bills, and they’ll have to decide which bills and obligations to pay. They might pay the interest on the debt, they might send out Social Security checks, they might pay doctors who take care of Medicare patients, they might pay federal employees, but they’ll have to make a choice as to who are they actually going to pay. And that will have consequences.

And what would those consequences look like?

Well, the U.S. Treasury debt is thought to be the most safe security in the world. It’s the one thing called a risk-free security. It’s something that everybody in the world expects will be solid, that the interest will be paid on time. So we would call into question the security of one of our biggest assets: the ability of the U.S. Treasury to borrow money.

In fact, it’s already beginning to affect the interest rate that the bond market sets on Treasury securities. There appear to be some investors who are afraid that, sometime around September 29th, there might be a delay in getting their interest payments. So there’s almost a little bit of a fire sale—nobody wants to be stuck holding the securities that have interest payments due on that date. They want to have something due before or after. We know that, from the past, when there were these controversies over the debt ceiling, that it was expensive for the U.S Treasury and taxpayers. They had to pay a little more money to borrow because people got a little nervous. And that’s just for something that never actually jumped over the ledge, so I think it would be pretty disruptive.

Now one thing we know from evidence from the Federal Reserve about discussions they had back in 2011, that have since been made public, is they’ve thought about how they could pay interest on the bonds and hold off on paying other bills for a while if this is like a two-day event. But [prioritizing those interest payments] would have political ramifications. Imagine if the government said to all the people who get Social Security, “Your check’s going to arrive a week late because Congress is screwing around.”

Speaking of prioritizing payments, there’s an idea floating around, backed primarily by the Freedom Caucus, that it wouldn’t be such a big deal if the U.S. hit its borrowing limits, because the Department of the Treasury could, in fact, just prioritize which bills to pay. They could prevent an actual default by prioritizing debt servicing payments, for example. What do you think of that line of argument?

The good thing, or the bad thing, is that, because we’ve had a couple of these scares, people are beginning to figure out, if the worst comes to pass, how would we manage?

But we don’t really know what would happen—it’s a lot harder than it sounds. And the mere fact of the U.S. Treasury being unable to meet some of its obligations, whether they were obligations to bond holders or to social security recipients or to defense contractors or federal employees … are we really in need of more reasons to distrust the federal government? I think it would have long-lasting effects. And I don’t really care very much about a fifth of a percentage point on some Treasury bonds that may go away, but I think it’ll raise the question forever of whether people can trust the U.S. government, both investors and our own citizens.

You want to have a plan in case your house burns down, but that doesn’t mean it’d be OK for you to burn down your house. And I think the people who are saying it’ll be OK are taking a big risk.

Freedom Caucus aside, most everyone actually does agree that the debt ceiling needs to be raised. Why is this even a controversial issue? Shouldn’t this be an easy vote?

Part of it is the dysfunction in D.C. right now. Things that once upon a time we thought were kind of automatic are no longer automatic.

It’s become a symbol for people who want to control government spending. In the past, things were often attached to the debt ceiling in order to use it as a lever to get something you wanted. Some of the past deficit reduction mechanisms, for example, were attached to the debt ceiling. So the Democrats say: “Wait a minute, you want us to vote to raise the debt ceiling on Monday, and then on Thursday you’re going to pass some budget resolution that gives big tax cuts to rich people, which means we have to borrow more? Why would we enable that policy that we don’t like?”

And a number of the Republicans are saying: “Look, unless we have some kind of crisis, some kind of action-forcing event, we’ll never agree to cut spending. So I will vote to raise the debt ceiling only if it’s packaged with some kind of promise that I can brag about to cut spending.” It becomes a lever for people to pursue their fiscal objectives.

There’s nothing new about that, it just seems to be a little bit more intense now, and a lot more unpredictable.

Do you think Congress will manage to get it done in time?

Yeah, at the last minute. My prediction is they’ll manage to raise it before we get to the point of default. They’ll find some way to do it. Either they’ll attach it to something that gets them enough conservative Republican votes, or they’ll make it clean enough that they can get the Democrats.

This is reminding a lot of people that this is really a stupid thing. Congress has already voted to spend the money. This is like spending the money on your VISA card, and then the bill comes, and you say, “Eh, I’m just not going to pay it.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This story originally appeared as “Here’s What You Need to Know About the Debt Ceiling” on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine’s newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.

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