A company or other organization, or an individual, is insolvent when its liabilities (what it owes) exceed the market value of its assets. Bankruptcy is a legal mechanism for liquidating or reorganizing an insolvent entity in a way that maximizes value for the creditors. When a firm is insolvent, each of its creditors is eager to be repaid what he is owed, out of the firm’s assets. By definition those assets are insufficient to satisfy all the creditors’ claims, so the creditors race to obtain judgments, which are then satisfied by sale of the firm’s assets, perhaps at fire-sale prices because of the race. Even if the firm could be saved as a going concern by eliminating some of its debt burden (its liabilities), transaction costs will make it difficult for the creditors to agree on how far their respective claims will be written down—how in short to share the grief. In a bankruptcy proceeding, the creditors are barred from suit and the judge supervises an orderly disposition of assets (whether by liquidation or by placing them in a reorganized entity) designed to maximize their value and hence the creditors’ ultimate return.
Bankruptcy is not limited to individuals and business firms; under
A nation has creditors in both a narrow and a broad sense. In the case of our federal government, they are of four types: owners of federal securities (Treasury bonds and short-term bonds called Treasury bills or Treasury notes); other persons or firms that have contracts with the federal government, for example for sale of goods or services to it; holders of federal entitlements, such as social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the pensions of retired federal employees; and beneficiaries of government services (as distinct from transfer payments), such as drivers on interstate highways and visitors to national parks, as well as the population at large, which is protected from crime and foreign aggression by federal police and military forces.
The first two categories of holders of government “debt” in a broad sense—owners of government bonds and holders of government contractors—correspond closely to the creditors of private companies. The third does not because federal entitlements can always be cut with impunity, from a legal standpoint; and the fourth are not entitlements, but services that are funded by annual congressional appropriations and so can be altered without being thought to disrupt settled expectations; they are the domain of “discretionary” government spending, though in a legal sense entitlements are discretionary also rather than being fixed and legally enforceable obligations.
But remember that insolvency is the condition, bankruptcy merely a treatment for the condition; and a condition is not less grave just because the best treatment for it is unavailable—in fact the condition is more serious in that case.
These reflections are suggested by the first issue (August 25) of a new publication by Morgan Stanley called Sovereign Subjects. The first issue is captioned “Ask Not Whether Governments Will Default, but How.” It is a criticism of the conventional method of evaluating a nation’s economic condition, which is to compare public debt (government bonds) to Gross Domestic Product. In the case of the
Because American tax rates are low by international standards and resistance to increasing them is fierce, Morgan Stanley’s report estimates that the ratio of current
What does a firm or an individual do when it is broke and there is no bankruptcy regime? It defaults. Nations do occasionally default on their bonds or other contractual obligations; or, if the bonds or other obligations are denominated in the local currency, they inflate the currency and so repay their obligations in cheaper money, which is the equivalent of a partial default. The
The deeper the financial hole that the government has dug for itself by incompetent economic management—and our government has dug itself a very deep hole, largely because of the mismanagement of monetary policy and financial regulation by the Federal Reserve under Greenspan and Bernanke and by other government agencies—the more difficult it is to climb out of the hole on the backs of holders of entitlements and recipients of government services. The political resistance is too intense. It’s at that point that the bondholders, and holders of other contractual rights against the government, have to start worrying about the prospects for outright default or default through inflation. These are possibilities in our future, just as in the future of