The Trillion Dollar Solution?

A formal petition has been submitted to the White House urging President Barack Obama to authorise the minting of a trillion dollar coin in an effort to solve the bitter partisan debate over its legal debt limit.

While it has to date gained less than a thousand signatures - well shy of the 25,000 required for an official response from the government - the petition nonetheless outlines a peculiar wrinkle in the on-going battle between Republican lawmakers and their Democratic rivals in the US House of Representatives.

Having recently agreed on a tax deal that will increase government revenues by around $620bn over the next decade, Congress now has less than two months to broker a compromise on spending cuts that would trim the requested $3.8tn budget. If and when that deal can be reached, Republicans say, they'll agree to vote for an extension of the debt ceiling, which the US technically breached on 31 December and will fully surpass, according to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, on 28 February.

The petition's aim, according to its advocates, is to bridge the gap between Congressional approval of a multi-trillion budget and Congressional reluctance to increase the borrowing limit in order to create the money.

By law, the US government is not permitted to simply create money on its own in order to meet its obligations. The quasi-independent US Federal Reserve was designed to allow it to put money into circulation by purchasing Federal government debt issued by the Treasury. However government bonds, bills and other securities held on the Fed's balance sheet count towards the $16.4tn debt ceiling.

In effect, the petition's supporters argue, commanding the Treasury to print a $1tn coin - something which is theoretically legal - would allow it to deposit that amount with the Federal Reserve, which could then put an equivalent amount of cash into the economy without the Treasury having to issue debt against it.

The result, in purely simplistic terms, would be a trillion cash creation that avoids the breaching of the debt ceiling and prevents the US economy from slipping back into recession.

Several problems, however, prevent the unlikely scenario from ever happening, not least of which would be the inherent damage such money creation would do to the value of the US dollar, which Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke argued in 2002 had value "only to the extent that they are strictly limited in supply."

Bill Gross, who manages the world's biggest bond fund for PIMCO, wrote Thursday that the world's most important central banks have issued more than $6tn dollars' worth of "essentially free" money into the global economy since the financial crisis in a misguided recovery effort that could erode stocks, bonds and currencies for generations to come.

Gross also noted the central paradox in the strategies of fiscal and monetary policy in most of the world's largest economies, where central bank purchases of government debt create what Bernanke called "essentially costless" money at the same time politicians are demanding the most significant spending cuts in at least half a century.

"Investors and ordinary citizens might wonder then, why the fuss over the fiscal cliff and the increasing amount of debt/GDP that current deficits portend," asked Gross in his monthly Investment Outlook column. "Why the austerity push in the U.K., and why the possibly exaggerated concern by U.S. Republicans over spending and entitlements?"

Comparing the $6tn committed by the six biggest central banks in the world since 2009 to the South Sea Bubble of the 1700s, Gross argues that the future cost of such policies will come "in the form of inflation and devaluation of currencies either relative to each other, or to commodities in less limitless supply such as oil or gold."