Government debt default and the money supply

A United States debt default will hit the economy as a reduction of government spending and it could also  hurt by forcing changes in the money supply.

The first thing to say about debt is that there is so much of it around the world that there is a high probability most of it will be written off either by defaults of inflation.  This debt is not so much borrowing from children as a transfer of purchasing power within this generation, some/most of which will never be returned. And those with the most are likely to lose the most but will still probably be more comfortable than the rest of us.

The second thing to say is that the probable root  cause of the economic crisis is in the real side of the economy as well as the financial sector.  We have used up most of the easily accessible energy and mineral resources and those that are left take a lot more work to extract.

If the United States defaults  some of its debt the government will have less money to spend.  As government spending is a component of gross domestic product there will be a reduction in economic activity.  Government spending currently makes up about 20 percent of GDP but only a small part of this will likely be cut immediately.

The effect of a debt default on the money supply is more complex and uncertain.  A drastic reduction in the money supply would bring a lot of economic activity to a halt.

Money is based on loans issued by the banks, involves fractional reserves (they are required to keep a percentage of deposits as reserves)  and dependant upon what is called high powered money which is subject to a multiplier because of the fractional reserves. (for and explanation of how money is created see these links, one, two.)  In a default one issue would be how much the losses fall upon institutions subject to fractional reserves because losses would reduce their reserves.  A reduction in their reserves would bring down the quantity of loans they could make – by a multiplier.  Thus the money supply in the economy would be reduced and without money the exchange of goods and services becomes difficult.

Under normal circumstances a reduction in the money supply would mean a reduction in the real economy.  But the real economy is already in trouble as noted above.

At this point I need to remind you of the formula MV=PQ.  The money supply times its velocity or the rate at which it changes hands is equal to prices or a price index times the quantity of goods and services.

In an attempt to stimulate the economy central banks have been using “quantitative easing” to inject more high powered money into the financial system so the banks will have more money to lend.   If the above formula is correct then there should have been a reduction in velocity or an increase in prices (inflation) or economic activity.  It may be that velocity has fallen but there is little evidence that inflation or GDP has increased.

If the formula is correct then something has to have happened to one of the other variables.   One possibility is that at least some of this extra money has gone into the financial markets and inflation has hit stocks.  If this is correct, then a reduction in money supply could hit the financial sector.

So there you have it a U.S. default would probably lead to a reduction in economic activity and it could also cause problems in the financial markets.  I just had a horrible thought.  What would happen if a lot of the major countries were to default at the same time?

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