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Donald Marron

The day the US defaulted on treasury bills

Saying that the US hasn't defaulted on federal debt since the days of Alexander Hamilton is great rhetoric. If only it were true.

By Guest blogger / May 26, 2011

Guards keeps watch over the Federal Reserve in Washington September 18, 2007. People tend to forget about the time that the US government defaulted on its debt in 1979.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters /

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Since the day of Alexander Hamilton, the United States has never defaulted on the federal debt.

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That’s what we budget-watchers always say. It’s a great talking point. One that helps bolster the argument that default should not be an option in Washington’s ongoing debt limit slowdown.

There’s just one teensy problem: it isn’t true. As Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal recently noted, the United States defaulted on some Treasury bills in 1979. And it paid a steep price for stiffing bondholders.

Terry Zivney and Richard Marcus describe the default in The Financial Review (sorry, I can’t find an ungated version):

Investors in T-bills maturing April 26, 1979 were told that the U.S. Treasury could not make its payments on maturing securities to individual investors. The Treasury was also late in redeeming T-bills which become due on May 3 and May 10, 1979. The Treasury blamed this delay on an unprecedented volume of participation by small investors, on failure of Congress to act in a timely fashion on the debt ceiling legislation in April, and on an unanticipated failure of word processing equipment used to prepare check schedules.

The United States thus defaulted because Treasury’s back office was on the fritz.

This default was, of course, temporary. Treasury did pay these T-bills after a short delay. But it balked at paying additional interest to cover the period of delay. According to Zivney and Marcus, it required both legal arm twisting and new legislation before Treasury made all investors whole for that additional interest.

Some may quibble about whether this constitutes default. After all, the United States did eventually make its payments. And the disruption applied to only a sliver of its debt – certain T-bills owned by individual investors.

But I think it’s unambiguous. A debt default occurs anytime a creditor fails to make a timely interest or principal payment. By that standard, the United States did default. It was small. It was unintentional. But it was indeed a default.

And the nation still stands. But that hardly means we should run the experiment again and at larger scale. Zivney and Marcus examined what happened to T-bill interest rates as a result of this small, temporary default. They find a surprisingly large effect. As best they can tell, T-bill interest rates increased about 60 basis points after the first default and remained elevated for at least several months thereafter. Here's a simple way to see that is to look at daily changes in T-bill yields.