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The "American Default" of 1933 and Some Possible Sanctions

posted by Mitu Gulati

Last week, my International Debt class was fortunate last week to have the opportunity to talk to Sebastian Edwards about his wonderful book “American Default”.  The book tells the astonishing (to me at least) story of the abrogation of gold clauses in US corporate and government bonds in 1933 and how that abrogation is then upheld by at 5-4 vote of the US Supreme Court in 1935.  Equally astonishing, as Sebastian’s book describes, the spillover effects in terms of costs to US future government borrowing, were near zero.  If anything, USG bonds were oversubscribed.

Our class session with Sebastian was last Wednesday and the world has witnessed some remarkable and disturbing events since then in Ukraine.  In the wake of our discussion of FDR’s 1933 abrogation of the gold clauses though, I found myself wondering about the following hypothetical for purposes of class discussion.

A large country, Bearland, brags that it has $630 billion of international reserves, the largest portion of which is held in the form of US Treasury bonds. 

Tomorrow afternoon the US Congress passes the following law:

Commencing at 12:00 noon EST on February 26, 2022, holders of US Government debt securities will be required, in order to redeem those instruments at maturity, to certify that neither they nor any predecessor in title to the securities has ever invaded the Republic of Ukraine.   Securities owned by any holder who cannot make this certification will be redeemed at maturity and the proceeds deposited in a blocked account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  

Context: Acme Capital, a New York based hedge fund, has acquired $1 billion of US Treasury bonds previously owned by Bearland.  Acme sues to declare the law unconstitutional and unenforceable. You are a law clerk to Justice Gelpern on the US Supreme Court.   She has asked you this question:  Don’t the Gold Clause cases from 1935 control this issue?   After all, Acme is getting its money so they are not harmed in that sense.  Acme just doesn’t like the fact that the money is blocked at the Fed”.

The foregoing strikes me as example of a situation in which the justices (and law clerks) must not only consider the legal correctness of the advice, but also its real world consequences.  In other words, very much the situation in 1935.

In the Bearland example, the legal question is whether the Bearland legislation imposes an ex post interference with contract or unconstitutional taking of Acme’s property by requiring the no-invasion certification.   

Advising that the measure is kosher, however, potentially puts all USG debt at risk of political interference. To see this, just change the words “invade Ukraine” in the Bearland certification to “invade Taiwan”.  Would any foreign state be prepared to buy US Treasury bonds knowing that they could be weaponized at any moment?  How much would that add to the interest rate on those bonds? Anything?

I wonder whether folks at the UST are considering strategies along these lines.  Maybe?

Comments

At least Bearlands' national energy companies have known the risk henceforth began switching sales denomination in CNY massively for new connections of this decade, but I guess there just isn't a viable alternative to USD on a large enough scale to swing the USD/UST demand side of equation...

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