With the UK parliament in Brexit gridlock, the Labour opposition is calling for a general election. Although its policy over Brexit and a second referendum is causing splits in the party, the Labour party is generally agreed that pubic expenditure on health, education and transport infrastructure needs to increase – that there needs to be an end to fiscal austerity. However, to fund extra public expenditure would require an increase in taxes and/or an increase in government borrowing.
One of the arguments against increasing government borrowing is that it will increase public-sector debt. The desire to get public-sector debt down as a percentage of GDP has been central to both the Coalition and Conservative governments’ economic strategy. Austerity policies have been based on this desire.
But, in the annual presidential address to the American Economics Association, former chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, criticised this position. He has argued for several years that cutting government deficits may weaken already weak economies and that this may significantly reduce tax revenues and potential national income, thereby harming recovery and doing long-term economic damage. Indeed, the IMF has criticised excessively tight fiscal policies for this reason.
In his presidential address, he expanded the argument to consider whether an increase in government borrowing will necessarily increase the cost of servicing government debt. When the (nominal) interest rate (r) on government borrowing is below the nominal rate of economic growth (gn), (r < gn), then even if total debt is not reduced, it is likely that the growth in tax revenues will exceed the growth in the cost of servicing the debt. Debt as a proportion of GDP will fall. The forecast nominal growth rate exceeds the 10-year nominal rate on government bonds by 1.3% in the USA, 2.2% in the UK and 1.8% in the eurozone. In fact, with the exception of a short period in the 1980s, nominal growth (gn) has typically exceeded the nominal interest rate on government borrowing (r) for decades.
When r < gn, this then gives scope for increasing government borrowing to fund additional government spending without increasing the debt/GDP ratio. Indeed, if that fiscal expansion increases both actual and potential income, then growth over time could increase, giving even more scope for public investment.
But, of course, that scope is not unlimited.
- What do you understand by ‘fiscal illusion’?
- What is the justification for reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- What are the arguments against reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Explain the significance of the relationship between r and gn for fiscal policy and the levels of government debt, government borrowing and the government debt/GDP ratio.
- Under what circumstances would a rise in the budget deficit not lead to a rise in government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Does Blanchard’s analysis suggest that a combination of both loose monetary policy and loose fiscal policy is desirable?
- Under Blanchard’s analysis, what would limit the amount that governments should increase spending?
‘The world is sinking under a sea of debt, private as well as public, and it is increasingly hard to see how this might end, except in some form of mass default.’ So claims the article below by Jeremy Warner. But just how much has debt grown, both public and private? And is it of concern?
The doomsday scenario is that we are heading for another financial crisis as over leveraged banks and governments could not cope with a collapse in confidence. Bank and bond interest rates would soar and debts would be hard to finance. The world could head back into recession as credit became harder and more expensive to obtain. Perhaps, in such a scenario, there would be mass default, by banks and governments alike. This could result in a plunge back into recession.
The more optimistic scenario is that private-sector debt is under control and in many countries is falling (see, for example, chart 1 in the blog Looking once again through Minsky eyes at UK credit numbers for the case of the UK). Even though private-sector debt could rise again as the world economy grows, it would be affordable provided that interest rates remain low and banks continue to build the requisite capital buffers under the Basel III banking regulations.
As far as public-sector debt is concerned, as a percentage of GDP its growth has begun to decline in advanced countries as a whole and, although gently rising in developing and emerging economies as a whole, is relatively low compared with advanced countries (see chart). Of course, there are some countries that still face much larger debts, but in most cases they are manageable and governments have plans to curb them, or at least their growth.
But there have been several warnings from various economists and institutes, as we saw in the blog post, Has the problem of excess global debt been tackled? Not according to latest figures. The question is whether countries can grow their way out of the problem, with a rapidly rising denominator in the debt/GDP ratios.
Only mass default will end the world’s addiction to debt The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (3/3/15)
- What would be the impact of several countries defaulting on debt?
- What factors determine the likelihood of sovereign defaults?
- What factors determine the likelihood of bank defaults?
- What is meant by ‘leverage’ in the context of (a) banks; (b) nations?
- What are the Basel III regulations? What impact will they have/are they having on bank leverage?
- Expand on the arguments supporting the doomsday scenario above.
- Expand on the arguments supporting the optimistic scenario above.
- What is the relationship between economic growth and debt?
- Explain how the explosion in global credit might merely be ‘the mirror image of rising output, asset prices and wealth’.
- Is domestic inflation a good answer for a country to the problems of rising debt denominated (a) in the domestic currency; (b) in foreign currencies?
According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, global debt is now higher than before the financial crisis. And that crisis was largely caused by excessive lending. As The Telegraph article linked below states:
The figures are as remarkable as they are terrifying. Global debt – defined as the liabilities of governments, firms and households – has jumped by $57 trillion, or 17% of global GDP, since the fourth quarter of 2007, which was supposed to be the peak of the bad old credit-fuelled days. In 2000, total debt was worth 246% of global GDP; by 2007, this had risen to 269% of GDP and today we are at 286% of GDP.
This is not how policy since the financial crisis was supposed to have worked out. Central banks and governments have been trying to encourage greater saving and reduced credit as a percentage of GDP, a greater capital base for banks, and reduced government deficits as a means of reducing government debt. But of 47 large economies in the McKinsey study, only five have succeeded in reducing their debt/GDP ratios since 2007 and in many the ratio has got a lot higher. China, for example, has seen its debt to GDP ratio almost double – from 158% to 282%, although its government debt remains low relative to other major economies.
Part of the problem is that the lack of growth in many countries has made it hard for countries to reduce their public-sector deficits to levels that will allow the public-sector debt/GDP ratio to fall.
In terms of the UK, private-sector debt has been falling as a percentage of GDP. But this has been more than offset by a rise in the public-sector debt/GDP ratio. As Robert Peston says:
[UK indebtedness] increased by 30 percentage points, to 252% of GDP (excluding financial sector or City debts) – as government debts have jumped by 50 percentage points of GDP, while corporate and household debts have decreased by 12 and 8 percentage points of GDP respectively.
So what are the likely consequences of this growth in debt and what can be done about it? The articles and report consider these questions.
Instead of paying down its debts, the world’s gone on another credit binge The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/15)
Global debts rise $57tn since crash BBC News, Robert Peston (5/2/15)
China’s Total Debt Load Equals 282% of GDP, Raising Economic Risks The Wall Street Journal, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (4/2/15)
Debt and (not much) deleveraging McKinsey Global Institute, Richard Dobbs, Susan Lund, Jonathan Woetzel, and Mina Mutafchieva (February 2015)
- Explain what is meant by ‘leverage’.
- Why does a low-leverage economy do better in a downturn than a high-leverage one?
- What is the relationship between deficits and the debt/GDP ratio?
- When might an increase in debt be good for an economy?
- Comment on the statement in The Telegraph article that ‘In theory, debt is fine if it is backed up by high-quality collateral’.
- Why does the rise is debt matter for the global economy?
- Is it possible for (a) individual countries; (b) all countries collectively to ‘live beyond their means’ by consuming more than they are producing through borrowing?
- What is the structure of China’s debt and what problems does this pose for the Chinese economy?