Debt Ceiling Crisis: How a Default Could Unfold

That allows the Treasury to avoid adding much to its outstanding $31.4 trillion debt load — something it can’t do right now since it enacted extraordinary measures after coming within a whisker of the debt limit on Jan. 19. And it should give the Treasury the cash it needs to avoid any disruption to payments, at least for now.

This week, for example, the government sold two-year, five-year and seven-year bonds. However, that debt doesn’t “settle” — meaning the cash is delivered to the Treasury and the securities delivered to the buyers at the auction — until May 31, coinciding with three other securities coming due.

More precisely, the new cash being borrowed is slightly larger than the amount coming due, with the tricky act of balancing all of the money coming in and out pointing to the Treasury’s challenge in the days and weeks ahead.

When all the payments are tallied, the government ends up with a little over $20 billion of extra cash, according TD Securities.

Some of that could go to the $12 billion of interest payments that the Treasury also has to pay that day. But as time goes on, and the debt limit becomes harder to avoid, the Treasury may have to postpone any incremental fund-raising, as it did during the debt limit standoff in 2015.

The U.S. Treasury pays its debts through a federal payments system called Fedwire. Big banks hold accounts at Fedwire, and the Treasury credits those accounts with payments on its debt. These banks then pass the payments through the market’s plumbing and via clearing houses, like the Fixed Income Clearing Corporation, with the cash eventually landing in the accounts of holders from domestic retirees to foreign central banks.

The Treasury could try to push off default by extending the maturity of debt coming due. Because of the way Fedwire is set up, in the unlikely event that the Treasury chooses to push out the maturity of its debt it will need to do so before 10 p.m. at the latest on the day before the debt matures, according to contingency plans laid out by the trade group Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, or SIFMA. The group expects that if this is done, the maturity will be extended for only one day at a time.

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