Trump Backtracks on Proposal to Renegotiate U.S. Debt

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A T-shirt with a picture depicting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen at a shop on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on May 8, 2016.

Photographer: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
  • Says U.S. never has to default `because you print the money’
  • `Ridiculous’ to suggest he would favor a default, he says

Donald Trump backtracked on his statement that he would renegotiate U.S. debt if the economy sours, a position that drew scorn from some in the financial community and provided an opening for Hillary Clinton’s campaign to blast the presumptive Republican presidential nominee on economic policy.

Trump said on CNN on Monday that he intended only to signal he would take advantage of a drop in the value of U.S. Treasury debt to save money by repurchasing debt on favorable terms.

“I said if we can buy back government debt at a discount -- in other words if interest rates go up and we can buy bonds back at a discount -- if we are liquid enough as a country, we should do that,” he said.

He called "ridiculous" suggestions that he would favor a default or forced restructuring that would require creditors to take a loss. “You never have to default because you print the money,” he added.

Trump’s statements on the debt and tax policy are likely to feature prominently in the general election campaign, with voters in most polls saying the economy is the top issue in the presidential race. While Clinton is still fending off a challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic nomination race, she had been mostly focusing on Trump and her campaign seized on the Republican’s remarks to paint him as uninformed.

Statement ‘Misrepresented’

Trump said Monday his statements last week on the nation’s debt have been “really misrepresented.” In an May 5 interview on CNBC, Trump said the U.S. needs money to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.

“I could see re-negotiations where we borrow at long term at very low rates,” he said last week. “I would borrow, knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal.”

The comments provoked furious criticism. The Washington Post said in an editorial the following day that the statement "sets a new record for economic recklessness." Patrick Chovanec, New York-based chief strategist for Silvercrest Asset Management Group, called the remarks “irresponsible talk.” 

Clinton Campaign

Gene Sperling, former director of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council, said in a conference call Monday arranged by Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s campaign that Trump’s clarification wasn’t reassuring. It still amounts to "openly toying with various forms of default on our debt," he said.

"He’s basically putting America in the position of saying, ‘I’m going to over-leverage and then if things look really terrible, if people fear that our debt will be worth less, I will come in and try to pay a discount,’” Sperling said. “That is one of the most dangerous economic things we’ve seen.”

He also said Trump’s tax proposals would drive up the nation’s debt.

Trump’s earlier statement had little initial impact on those who have the most direct interest, buyers and sellers of government debt. The benchmark 10-year-yield fell 0.03 percentage point to 1.75 percent on the day of Trump’s comments last week. Treasury prices gained, a sign bond traders weren’t taking his comments as a serious threat to their investments.

The federal government had $18.2 trillion debt outstanding at the end of the last fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2015, according to the Treasury Department. The share of that held by the public was $13.1 trillion.

The market for U.S. Treasury debt is a linchpin for global financial markets because of its size, liquidity and perceived minimal risk of default. Interest rates for many other forms of debt such as home mortgages and corporate bonds are essentially priced in reference to yields on U.S. debt. A default would risk disrupting global markets and raising interest rates for corporate and consumer debt.

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