While official Washington is focused on potential tax hikes and automatic spending cuts, another fiscal crisis looms on the horizon.
The federal government is likely to hit a ceiling on issuing new debt come late December and could begin defaulting on obligations by mid-February.
There is less room for the Treasury Department to maneuver than during last year’s debt-ceiling debacle and financial markets may see greater turmoil than in 2011.
The government should hit its $16.394 trillion debt limit during the final week of December, according to the center.
The Treasury Department can, as it did in 2011, turn to a number of extraordinary measures to avoid defaulting on the debt it has already issued. The juggling act by Treasury is likely to run out, however, somewhere around mid-February.
That raises the prospects of a debt default by the world’s largest and most developed economy, unheard of in modern times. Congress and the Obama administration last year dragged out negotiations to raise the debt ceiling – something previously done year after year without great controversy – over a period of roughly eight months. There won’t be that luxury this time.
“The extraordinary measures this year will yield less money to Treasury to use than they did in 2011. That money will get you less time,” said Steve Bell, director of economic policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Last year’s debt debacle resulted in an embarrassing downgrade of the U.S. debt rating by Standard & Poor’s.
This time, the government is poised to run out of temporary fixes in February. That date, which the center calls the X Date, falls in a month when the U.S. government is supposed to provide tax refunds to millions of Americans who’d have already filed their tax returns for 2012. The center thinks that month alone, there’ll be an outflow of $112 billion to taxpayers, along with another $117 billion owed to Social Security recipients and for reimbursement owed in the Medicare and Medicaid systems.
On top of that, there’s $33 billion due on interest on the debt alone, and another $27 billion due to vendors who sell to the Defense Department. In all, the center sees monthly outflows owed at around $464 billion in February, compared to incomes revenue to the government of about $202 billion.