A default today could be deemed "technical" because it would be the result of the government's unwillingness to pay, not its ability, JPMorgan Chase analysts including Alex Roever said in a report last week.
In a technical default, only the prices of Treasury bonds that mature or have coupon payments would fall, according to the analysts. Money-market funds wouldn't be forced to sell government bonds, and the Fed probably would continue accepting them as collateral for emergency cash.
That distinction is nothing more than an effort to downplay the danger of default, according to MIT's Johnson. Sovereign defaults are always about the political will to pay because most governments can print money to make payments if they want to, Johnson said.
Labeled technical or not, a default is still a default, said Jim Grant, founder of Grant's Interest Rate Observer.
"People have typically turned to Treasuries as a safe haven, but what will happen when they realize it's not safe anymore," said Grant, who has followed interest rates since the 1970s. "Financial markets are all confidence-based. If that confidence is shaken, you have disaster."
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has said the government will have only $30 billion of cash left by Oct. 17 to meet its commitments. Those can run as high as $60 billion a day, which means the Treasury will need to borrow more to meet its liabilities, Lew said. Goldman Sachs expects the Treasury's cash balance to be depleted by Oct. 31 and "possibly quite a bit sooner," analysts at the bank wrote in an Oct. 5 report.
The Treasury has $120 billion of short-term bonds coming due on Oct. 17, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. An additional $93 billion of bills are due on Oct. 24. On the last day of the month, $150 billion needs to be paid back, including two-year and five-year notes that mature. The total due from Oct. 17 through Nov. 7 is $417 billion.