If you've watched business TV or read Paul Krugman lately, you may have stumbled across a strange and maybe frightening debate among policy wonks and pundits about something called a trillion-dollar coin.
What is this coin, and why should you care about it? The second part of that question is harder to answer, but the first part is easily explained. It's a gimmick that, as Krugman wrote on Monday, President Obama could and possibly should threaten to use as a solution to a potentially devastating fight with Congress over the debt ceiling. Here's how it--
Wait? Debt ceiling? What is that?
The debt ceiling is the maximum Congress lets the government borrow. Back in ancient times (World War I), Congress started setting a big old debt limit so that it wouldn't have to constantly approve new borrowing, its job under the Constitution. This gives Congress the power to vote on whether to let the government borrow more money to pay off its old debts and other stuff for which it's on the hook, including stuff it may regret now, like that unfortunate leather sofa it bought at Raymour & Flanigan, or Iraq.
Usually this is no big deal. Congress is constantly having to boost the debt ceiling. But the historically terrible 112th Congress darn near let the ceiling be breached last year, trying to wring spending cuts out of Obama. That meant the government was nearly unable to pay its debts, which would have been an economy-destroying default by the world's biggest borrower and one of its soundest credits. The whole fiasco led to the U.S. government getting its credit-rating downgraded by Standard & Poor's, and it set the stage for all that fiscal-cliff nonsense we just went through.
Fiscal cliff? Ugh, not that again.
Yeah, I'm sick of hearing about it, too. Unfortunately, this new debt ceiling fight is much, much, much worse than the fiscal cliff. It will involve some of the fiscal-cliff spending cuts left over from that fight, now with the added fear of a possible government default. Oh, and the current federal budget expires soon, meaning we might also get a government shutdown on top of it. This is the big one, Elizabeth.
Crap, this is not the Doomsday I was Prepping for. I bought so many sandbags! Wait, you said there was a magic coin that could save us?
Indeed there is. Theoretically, at least. The idea was first floated on the Firedoglake blog way back in January 2011 by somebody calling him- or herself Beowulf.
I totally read that in high school.
That may have been the last thing many of us actually read in high school. Anyway, Beowulf pointed out that there are a couple of obscure laws from the 1990s that let the Treasury Department produce platinum coins of any denomination whenever it wants. The point of the laws, according to their brainchild, former GOP Rep. Michael Castle, was to give Treasury the ability to raise a little cash with cool novelty coins.
But Beowulf figured out that the Treasury can legally use these laws to print whatever coins it wants -- including trillion-dollar coins -- and then deposit them into its bank account at the Federal Reserve, in exchange for a bunch of cash it can use to pay off its debts. That would render the debt ceiling meaningless, because the government wouldn't have to borrow again. For a while.
Hang on, the Treasury has a bank account at the Fed?
Yes, like a checking account. Whenever the Treasury Department collects tax money from you, for example, it puts it into its Fed account, and then it uses that money to pay its bills, too. According to Beowulf's idea, Treasury could just print up a big old coin, carry it down to the Fed, and because it was legal tender, the Fed would have to let Treasury play with its actual money.
Hmm, this sounds kind of crazy, and maybe stupid also!
No doubt. The idea is in fact crazy and at least partially stupid, as many of its proponents will tell you. But it is crazy like Jonathan Swift's proposal to eat children was crazy: It is a craziness intentionally designed to highlight another, more realistic and dangerous flavor of crazy. In Swift's case, that crazy was the heartlessness of Irish policy makers in the 18th Century. In the case of the growing crowd calling for the Trillion-Dollar-Coin solution -- including, recently, prominent economists Paul Krugman and Mark Thoma and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) -- the craziness being highlighted is the very dangerous insanity of House Republicans, who are threatening to make the U.S. government default on its debts, triggering a global financial panic, in order to wring some spending cuts out of President Obama.
"Republican intransigence over the debt ceiling is juvenile," Bloomberg's Josh Barro wrote on Monday. "There is no particular reason that the president should not use a juvenile strategy in response."
Well, it's a moot point anyway, because we don't have trillions of dollars' worth of platinum.
We don't need trillions of dollars' worth of platinum, because the mid-1990s laws give the Treasury Department the right to print up a coin made out of just a little bit of platinum and stamp whatever denomination it wants on it. One trillion, two trillion, whatever.
OK, but all of this money printing is going to cause inflation, won't it?
Not necessarily. The same amount of money will be in the financial system whether the Treasury Department uses a giant coin or just keeps borrowing money. There is a risk of inflation expectations rising as investors see these trillion-dollar-coins getting thrown around. Expectations of higher prices can make inflation a self-fulfilling prophecy. But Obama could promise to use the coin just this once, to avoid this debt-ceiling default. He could even sign on to the bill proposed on Monday by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) blocking the use of the coin, in exchange for a promise by Congress to do away with the debt ceiling forever, as Cullen Roche of Orcam Financial Group proposed on Monday.
Whose face would go on the coin?
OK, I'm sold. When is this going to happen?
Hmm, let's check our calendars. How about never? Does never work for you?
It is almost certainly not happening, because it is antithetical to everything Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have stood for in the past four years. It's a safe guess it is also probably a nonstarter for likely future Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. It's hard to imagine Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke would react well to being asked to cash a $1 trillion gold coin.
Felix Salmon argues that it's far too childish a maneuver for Obama to safely use without sparking a global panic, and it's likely that Obama sees it this way, too.
"There’s exactly zero chance that the House Republicans, faced with the Coin Threat, will suddenly turn logical and decide that they’re not going to play political games around the debt ceiling after all," Salmon wrote on Monday. "Rather, the Coin Threat is a political game, played by the other side: it’s the executive branch bringing itself down to the House Republicans’ level."
Has that been Obama's style lo these past four years? No. Instead he has hastened at every opportunity to show himself to be the guy who won't shoot the hostage or print the giant magic coin, sometimes to his detriment.
The coin idea may also be unconstitutional, letting the President usurp powers that have been given exclusively to Congress, suggests CNBC's John Carney. Obama has already said his lawyers don't like the idea of getting around the debt-ceiling fight using the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which mandates that "the validity of the debt... shall not be questioned." This further-out-of-the-box idea sounds like another thing his lawyers, and political advisors, won't like.
The likelier outcome is that Obama and Republicans will strike another harrowing last-minute deal that makes nobody happy and freaks everybody out for several weeks. It's how our Forefathers would have wanted it.
8. PlayStation Vita
<strong>Company: </strong>Sony Released first in Japan in December 2011 and then globally in February 2012, initial sales of the PlayStation Vita were encouraging. By the end of February, the company announced it had sold approximately 1.2 million units, followed by an additional 2 million units of software for the handheld game console. Yet sales quickly declined. From its release date to June 30, just 2.2 million PlayStation Vita units were sold, far less than the 3.6 million units Nintendo 3DS sold in just its first month. Recently, Sony has clumped sales of the Vita and its predecessor, the PSP, together to avoid highlighting embarrassing sales figures. Frequent complaints about the Vita were that the $300 price tag was too expensive and that its game lineup was both weak and small, especially given the availability of cheaper gaming through smartphones and tablets. Read more at <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/12/21/the-worst-product-flops-of-2012/#ixzz2FiQkMg8E">24/7 Wall St.</a>
<strong>Company:</strong> Intel Corp. (<a href="http://247wallst.dailyfinance.com/quote/nasdaq/intel-corp/intc">NASDAQ: INTC</a>) When Intel released the Ultrabook, it looked to be the key competitor to Apple’s MacBook. That clearly has not happened. Earlier this year, research firm IHS had forecast that 22 million ultrabooks would be shipped by the end of 2012 and an additional 61 million would be shipped in 2013. However, by October, the firm changed its projections drastically, predicting that just 10 million would be sold this year, and only 44 million would be sold in 2013. The problem with the Ultrabook is twofold. Ultrabooks are highly expensive in a market where pricing is everything — the majority cost around $1,000. But the larger issue is the increasing movement to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. “There once was a time when everyone knew the ‘Dude you’re getting a Dell’ slogan,” IHS analyst Craig Stice said in the firm’s report. “Nowadays no one can remember a tag line for a new PC product, including for any single ultrabook.” Read more at <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/12/21/the-worst-product-flops-of-2012/#ixzz2FiQ3E7uO">24/7 Wall St.</a>
6. "Pan Am"
<strong>Company:</strong> Disney Disney’s second product flop of the year comes from its television segment. “Pan Am,” which debuted in September 2011, was heavily promoted by ABC. With stars such as Christina Ricci, the show was meant to take off in the ratings. Excluding promotion, the cost of the pilot episode was $10 million. The show’s debut was strong, with more than 11 million viewers tuning in. However, by the time the last episode was aired in February, viewership was down to below 4 million. That same evening, 10 million people watched “CSI Miami” and 7.7 million people watched the season premier of “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Critics pointed to a host of issues, including a dull plot line and competition from other major shows. There were rumors that Amazon would pick up the show for its streaming service, but the contracts for the cast and crew had expired. The show was officially cancelled in May. Read more at <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/12/21/the-worst-product-flops-of-2012/#ixzz2FiPeyliC">24/7 Wall St.</a>
5. Nokia Lumia 900
<strong>Company:</strong> Nokia Corp. (<a href="http://247wallst.dailyfinance.com/quote/nyse/nokia/nok">NYSE: NOK</a>) The Lumia 900 was introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show back in January, but sales were never able to take off. Although the phone debuted at just $100 with a two-year contract, AT&T soon dropped the price to $50 to improve sales — and even that didn’t work. A consistent criticism of the phone was that its screen resolution was weaker than competitor phones and, more importantly, that the Microsoft’s Windows operating platform had a shortage of apps. By November, Nokia started selling the Lumia 920, and early predictions for sales of the newer version were mixed. Nokia, once the world’s largest mobile phone maker, has steadily declined in recent years, losing significant market share to companies such as Samsung and Apple. In the third quarter of 2012, Nokia’s market share of smartphones was just 4.3%, according to Gartner Research. Read more at <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/12/21/the-worst-product-flops-of-2012/#ixzz2FiP3tgqE">24/7 Wall St. </a>
4. Sony Tablet P
<strong>Company:</strong> Sony (<a href="http://247wallst.dailyfinance.com/quote/nyse/sony-corp-adr/sne">NYSE: SNE</a>) Earlier this year Sony debuted the Tablet P, the company’s attempt to make tablets an even more portable experience. The P features a unique clamshell design, allowing the device to fold in half and fit into a pocket. This feature, however, also resulted in a flaw that ruined the device for most users. In order to fold, the screen is split in half by a large, black hinge, which makes playing games and reading incredibly awkward. Because of the screen split, as well as complaints about the operating system and touchscreen sensitivity, the P garnered horrible reviews. In response to poor sales, the device was sold at steep discount — dropping from $549 to $199 — within a few months. In August, Sony announced it would be updating the Android operating system to the latest “Jellybean” version for the Sony Tablet S, but that the P would not be updated. The company is no longer selling the tablet on its American website. Read more at <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/12/21/the-worst-product-flops-of-2012/#ixzz2FiOW0gIl">24/7 Wall St.</a>
3. "John Carter"
<strong>Company:</strong> Walt Disney Co. (<a href="http://247wallst.dailyfinance.com/quote/nyse/walt-disney/dis">NYSE: DIS</a>) “John Carter” was widely touted by Disney, but the ingredients to make it a success were never there. The director, Andrew Stanton, had never directed a live-action movie before. The executives producing the film had minimal experience running a movie production. The reviews were, to be generous, mixed. The science-fiction movie, which cost $250 million to make and another $100 million to promote, opened with a meager $30.6 million in U.S. ticket sales. Foreign sales helped boost opening weekend to more than $100 million, but sales quickly fell. Disney said shortly after the release it would take a $200 million write-down on the movie, making it the biggest box-office dud ever. Read more at <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/12/21/the-worst-product-flops-of-2012/#ixzz2FiNyZeOY">24/7 Wall St.</a>
2. Dodge Dart
<strong>Company:</strong> Chrysler Chrysler placed much emphasis on the Dart, hoping it could compete with other compact cars such as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus. The company began its marketing campaign during the Major League Baseball All-Star game with a 90-second commercial featuring NFL quarterback Tom Brady. Even though Chrysler aimed for the fences, the Dart appears to have struck out. Initial sales were as low as 200 units a month. And although Chrysler managed to sell 4,500 Darts in November, it was well below sales of the Civic and Corolla, which sold 30,075 and 22,255, respectively, during the same month. Analysts at Edmunds.com tell 24/7 Wall St. that Chrysler did not have experience selling compact cars in the same manner it had selling Jeeps and trucks. Reviewers from Consumer Reports failed to give the Dart its “recommended” rating due to powertrain issues. Read more at <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/12/21/the-worst-product-flops-of-2012/#ixzz2FiNBzrEP">24/7 Wall St.</a>
1. Apple Maps
<strong>Company:</strong> Apple Inc. (<a href="http://247wallst.dailyfinance.com/quote/nasdaq/apple/aapl">NASDAQ: AAPL</a>) When Apple upgraded its operating platform to the iOS6, the company decided to dump rival Google’s Maps system and replace it with its own product. When the service debuted in September, though, a host of problems arose. Users quickly noticed incorrect information, such as confusing Greenland with the Indian Ocean. Some images were only in black and white, and some points on the map were obscured by clouds. The fiasco was so bad that Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote a public letter apologizing for the mess. When Apple’s senior vice president of iOS software, Scott Forstall, refused to sign the letter, he was shown the door. As the company tried to solve the problem, it recommended using its competitors services. This month, Google maps returned to the iPhone and became the most downloaded app in the iTunes store less than a day after its release. Read more at <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/12/21/the-worst-product-flops-of-2012/#ixzz2FiM0yxcn">24/7 Wall St.</a>