Why We Must Go Off the Platinum Coin Cliff

I'm glad to see Representative Jerrold Nadler lending his support to the idea that President Barack Obama should avert a debt-limit crisis by issuing large-denomination platinum coins, as permitted by 31 USC § 5112.

In case you're not familiar with this idea: In general, the Treasury Department is not allowed to just print money if it feels like it. It must defer to the Federal Reserve's control of the money supply. But there is an exception: Platinum coins may be struck with whatever specifications the Treasury secretary sees fit, including denomination.

This law was intended to allow the production of commemorative coins for collectors. But it can also be used to create large-denomination coins that Treasury can deposit with the Fed to finance payment of the government's bills, in lieu of issuing debt.

What the law should say is that the executive branch may borrow to pay whatever obligations the federal government has, but may not print. Unfortunately, when we hit the debt ceiling, the situation will be backwards: The administration will not be allowed to borrow, but it can print in unlimited quantities.

This points toward an interesting solution.

If Republicans start issuing a list of demands that must be met before they will raise the debt ceiling, Obama should simply say that he will issue platinum coins as necessary to pay government bills if he cannot borrow. But, to avoid causing long-term inflation expectations to skyrocket, he should pledge that he will have the Treasury issue enough bonds to buy back all the newly issued currency as soon as it is allowed to do so.

And then he should offer to sign a bill revoking his authority to issue platinum coins -- so long as that bill also abolishes the debt ceiling. The executive branch will give up its unwarranted power to print if the legislative branch will give up its unwarranted restriction on borrowing to cover already appropriated obligations.

Joe Weisenthal got this right this morning: Hitting the debt ceiling isn't an option. It's no way to run the country, and Republicans know that. So, a debt-ceiling increase shouldn't count as a "concession," and it's nutty for Obama to have to give substantive policy ground to get one.

Monetizing deficits through direct presidential control of the currency, in lieu of borrowing, is also no way to run a country. It's silly, and it's perfectly legal. Agreeing not to do so is therefore the ideal "concession" for Obama to offer in return for Republicans agreeing to end the threat of a debt-default crisis.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

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