If the president wants to avoid an economic calamity next year, he could always show up at a news conference bearing two shiny platinum coins, each worth ... $1 trillion.
This sounds utterly insane. But some economists and legal scholars have suggested that the “platinum coin solution” is one way to defuse a crisis if Congress cannot or will not lift the debt ceiling soon. At least in theory.
The U.S. government is, after all, facing a real problem. The Treasury Department will hit its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit by February at the latest. Unless Congress reaches an agreement to lift the debt ceiling, the government will no longer be able to borrow enough money to pay all its bills.
Last year, Republicans in Congress resisted raising the debt ceiling until the last minute — and then only in exchange for spending cuts. Panic ensued. So what happens if there is another showdown this year?
Enter the platinum coins. Under current law, the Treasury is technically allowed to mint as many coins made of platinum as it wants and can assign them whatever value it pleases.
Under this scenario, the U.S. Mint would make a pair of trillion-dollar platinum coins. The president orders the coins to be deposited at the Federal Reserve. The Fed moves this money into Treasury’s accounts. And just like that, Treasury suddenly has an extra $2 trillion to pay off its obligations for the next two years — without needing to issue new debt. The ceiling is no longer an issue.
“I like it,” said Joseph Gagnon of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “There’s nothing that’s obviously economically problematic about it.”
In theory, this is much like having the central bank print money. But, Gagnon said, the U.S. government would simply be using the money to keep spending at existing levels, so it would not create any extra inflation. And if it did cause problems, the Fed could always counteract the effects by winding down some of its other programs to inject money into the economy.
Is the platinum coin option really legal? Apparently so.
It was raised during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis by Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale Law School. Under law, he noted, there’s a limit to how much paper money the United States can circulate at any one time, and there are rules that limit how many gold, silver and copper coins the Treasury can mint.
But there’s no such limit when it comes to platinum coins. It’s right there in the U.S. legal code: “The Secretary may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.”
Problem solved, right? Maybe not. This strategy would not be risk-free. Congress could argue that the original law was intended to govern commemorative coins — like the official platinum coin shown above — not to finance the operations of the government. And, of course, the political blowback would be fierce.
Indeed, even Balkin now says he thinks the platinum coin option is too risky. If Congress cannot or will not lift the debt ceiling, then most likely the Obama administration would have to start shutting down parts of the government so it does not default on its debt. That, in theory, would prod Congress to act.
“All those other ideas (such as the platinum coin option) are very uncertain, and they could lead to complicated litigation,” Balkin said. “A government shutdown is much more straightforward.”
The platinum coin is only one of many out-of-the-box ideas that have been proposed to avoid a debt-ceiling crisis. Some legal scholars have suggested that Obama could declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. Last year, Gagnon suggested that the Treasury Department could start selling off its gold reserves to pay its bills until Congress acted.
But the consensus seems to be that all of these options are wildly unlikely. A recent report by Chris Krueger, a policy analyst at Guggenheim Partners, suggested that such ideas as a 14th Amendment challenge or the platinum coins “are VERY low probability options.”
But not impossible. And if, for whatever reason, Congress does not raise the debt ceiling as part of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, then some of these wacky ideas may get more attention.
U.S. Mint’s current “$100 coin”
The U.S. Mint’s American Eagle platinum bullion coin was authorized by Congress and first issued in 1997. The 1-ounce piece is the first and only official investment-grade platinum coin from the U.S. government. They are official and thus legal tender, though the face value ($100, the highest to ever appear on an American coin) is largely symbolic.