Forget the federal government's 14 trillion in debt--and some 100 trillion in unfunded liabilities--the first shoe to drop might very well be the debt markets of the state and local governments, which lack recourse to a printing press.
From The Economic Collapse blog,
Once upon a time, municipal bonds (used to fund such things as roads, sewer systems and government buildings) were viewed as incredibly safe investments. They were considered to have virtually no risk. But now all of that has changed. Many analysts are now openly speaking of the possibility of a municipal bond market crash in 2011. The truth is that dozens upon dozens of city and county governments are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Even the debt of some of our biggest state governments, such as Illinois and California, is essentially considered to be "junk" at this point. There are literally hundreds of governmental financial implosions happening in slow motion from coast to coast, and up to this point not a lot of people in the mainstream media have been talking about it. [...]
Unlike the federal government, state and local governments cannot just ask the Federal Reserve to print up endless amounts of cash. If state and local governments want to spend more than they bring in, they must borrow it from investors.
If the municipal bond market crashes, and investors around the world are no longer willing to hand over gigantic sacks of cash to state and local governments in the United States, then the game is over. Either state and local governments will have to raise taxes or they will have to start spending within their means.
Most Americans have no idea what this would mean. For decade after decade, state and local governments throughout the nation have been living way, way, way above their means. If the debt cycle gets cut off, it is going to mean that many local communities around the nation will start degenerating into rotting hellholes nearly overnight.
We are already seeing this happen in places such as Detroit, Michigan and Camden, New Jersey but if the municipal bond market totally collapses we are quickly going to have dozens of Detroits and Camdens from coast to coast.
Let's take a closer look at some of the state and local governments that are in some of the biggest trouble....
California is facing a 19 billion dollar budget deficit next year, and incoming governor Jerry Brown is scrambling to find billions more to cut from the California state budget. At this point, investors are becoming increasingly wary about loaning any more money to the state. The following quote from Brown about the desperate condition of California state finances is not going to do much to inspire confidence in California's financial situation around the globe....
"We've been living in fantasy land. It is much worse than I thought. I'm shocked."
Unfortunately, the economic situation in California continues to degenerate. For example, 24.3 percent of the residents of El Centro, California are now unemployed. In fact, the number of people unemployed in the state of California is approximately equivalent to the populations of Nevada, New Hampshire and Vermont combined.
The housing market in the state is also a major drag on the economy there. For instance, the average home in Merced, California has declined in value by 63 percent over the past four years.
The state of California is swamped with so much debt that there literally appears to be no way out.
The state government of Arizona is so incredibly starved for cash that it actually sold off the state capitol building, the state supreme court building and the legislative chambers. Now they are leasing those buildings back from the investors that they sold them to.
Arizona also recently announced that it has decided to stop paying for many types of organ transplants for people enrolled in its Medicaid program.
Illinois is widely regarded to be in the worst financial condition of all the U.S. states. At this point, Illinois has approximately $5 billion in outstanding bills that have not been paid.
According to 60 Minutes, the state of Illinois is six months behind on bill payments. 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Croft asked Illinois state Comptroller Dan Hynes how many people and organizations are waiting to be paid by the state, and this is how Hynes responded....
"It's fair to say that there are tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people waiting to be paid by the state."
The University of Illinois alone is owed 400 million dollars. There are approximately two thousand not-for-profit organizations that are collectively owed a billion dollars by the Illinois state government.
The New Jersey state budget has been slashed by 26 percent, a billion dollars have been cut from education and thousands of teachers have been laid off.
But even with all of those cuts, New Jersey is still facing a $10 billion budget deficit next year, and the state has $46 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and $65 billion in unfunded health care liabilities that it is somehow going to have to address in the future.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has come up with a new way to save money. He wants to cut 20 percent of Detroit off from essential social services such as road repairs, police patrols, functioning street lights and garbage collection.
One Miami commissioner declared earlier this year that bankruptcy may be the city's only financial hope.
Philadelphia, Baltimore and Sacramento
Major cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore and Sacramento have instituted "rolling brownouts" in which various city fire stations are shut down on a rotating basis.
The second most dangerous city in the United States - Camden, New Jersey - is about to lay off about half its police in a desperate attempt to save money.
Oakland, California Police Chief Anthony Batts has announced that due to severe budget cuts there are a number of crimes that his department will simply not be able to respond to any longer. The crimes that the Oakland police will no longer be responding to include grand theft, burglary, car wrecks, identity theft and vandalism.
Nassau County, New York
In New York, the country of Nassau (one of the wealthiest counties in the state) has a budget deficit that is approaching 350 million dollars.
The endgame will take one of two possible forms: 1) the federal government says no, and the downward pressures of cancelled pensions, higher taxes, and unemployment push the economy into a deflationary depression; or 2) the Feds say yes, fire up the printing press, meet every state and local obligation in nominal terms, and create, eventually, hyperinflation.
I'd bet on scenario two.