Tag: public debt

The past decade or so has seen large-scale economic turbulence. As we saw in the blog Fiscal impulses, governments have responded with large fiscal interventions. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, led to a positive fiscal impulse in the UK in 2020, as measured by the change in the structural primary balance, of over 12 per cent of national income.

The scale of these interventions has led to a significant increase in the public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio in many countries. The recent interest rates hikes arising from central banks responding to inflationary pressures have put additional pressure on the financial well-being of governments, not least on the financing of their debt. Here we discuss these pressures in the context of the ‘r g’ rule of sustainable public debt.

Public-sector debt and borrowing

Chart 1 shows the path of UK public-sector net debt and net borrowing, as percentages of GDP, since 1990. Debt is a stock concept and is the result of accumulated flows of past borrowing. Net debt is simply gross debt less liquid financial assets, which mainly consist of foreign exchange reserves and cash deposits. Net borrowing is the headline measure of the sector’s deficit and is based on when expenditures and receipts (largely taxation) are recorded rather than when cash is actually paid or received. (Click here for a PowerPoint of Chart 1)

Chart 1 shows the impact of the fiscal interventions associated with the global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, when net borrowing rose to 10 per cent and 15 per cent of GDP respectively. The former contributed to the debt-to-GDP ratio rising from 35.6 per cent in 2007/8 to 81.6 per cent in 2014/15, while the pandemic and subsequent cost-of-living interventions contributed to the ratio rising from 85.2 per cent in 2019/20 to around 98 per cent in 2023/24.

Sustainability of the public finances

The ratcheting up of debt levels affects debt servicing costs and hence the budgetary position of government. Yet the recent increases in interest rates also raise the costs faced by governments in financing future deficits or refinancing existing debts that are due to mature. In addition, a continuation of the low economic growth that has beset the UK economy since the global financial crisis also has implications for the burden imposed on the public sector by its debts, and hence the sustainability of the public finances. After all, low growth has implications for spending commitments, and, of course, the flow of receipts.

The analysis therefore implies that the sustainability of public-sector debt is dependent on at least three factors: existing debt levels, the implied average interest rate facing the public sector on its debts, and the rate of economic growth. These three factors turn out to underpin a well-known rule relating to the fiscal arithmetic of public-sector debt. The rule is sometimes known as the ‘r g’ rule (i.e. the interest rate minus the growth rate).

Underpinning the fiscal arithmetic that determines the path of public-sector debt is the concept of the ‘primary balance’. This is the difference between the sector’s receipts and its expenditures less its debt interest payments. A primary surplus (a positive primary balance) means that receipts exceed expenditures less debt interest payments, whereas a primary deficit (a negative primary balance) means that receipts fall short. The fiscal arithmetic necessary to prevent the debt-to-GDP ratio rising produces the following stable debt equation or ‘r g’ rule:

On the left-hand side of the stable debt equation is the required primary surplus (PS) to GDP (Y) ratio. Moving to the right-hand side, the first term is the existing debt-to-GDP ratio (D/Y). The second term ‘r g’, is the differential between the average implied interest rate the government pays on its debt and the growth rate of the economy. These terms can be expressed in either nominal or real terms as this does not affect the differential.

To illustrate the rule consider a country whose existing debt-to-GDP ratio is 1 (i.e. 100 per cent) and the ‘r g’ differential is 0.02 (2 percentage points). In this scenario they would need to run a primary surplus to GDP ratio of 0.02 (i.e. 2 percent of GDP).

The ‘r g‘ differential

The ‘r g’ differential reflects macroeconomic and financial conditions. The fiscal arithmetic shows that these are important for the dynamics of public-sector debt. The fiscal arithmetic is straightforward when r = g as any primary deficit will cause the debt-to-GDP ratio to rise, while a primary surplus will cause the ratio to fall. The larger is g relative to r the more favourable are the conditions for the path of debt. Importantly, if the differential is negative (r < g), it is possible for the public sector to run a primary deficit, up to the amount that the stable debt equation permits.

Consider Charts 2 and 3 to understand how the ‘r g’ differential has affected debt sustainability in the UK since 1990. Chart 2 plots the implied yield on 10-year government bonds, alongside the annual rate of nominal growth (click here for a PowerPoint). As John explains in his blog The bond roller coaster, the yield is calculated as the coupon rate that would have to be paid for the market price of a bond to equal its face value. Over the period, the average annual nominal growth rate was 4.5 per cent, while the implied interest rate was almost identical at 4.6 per cent. The average annual rate of CPI inflation over this period was 2.8 per cent.

Chart 3 plots the ‘r g’ differential which is simply the difference between the two series in Chart 2, along with a 12-month rolling average of the differential to help show better the direction of the differential by smoothing out some of the short-term volatility (click here for a PowerPoint). The differential across the period is a mere 0.1 percentage points implying that macroeconomic and financial conditions have typically been neutral in supporting debt sustainability. However, this does mask some significant changes across the period.

We observe a general downward trend in the ‘r g’ differential from 1990 up to the time of the global financial crisis. Indeed between 2003 and 2007 we observe a favourable negative differential which helps to support the sustainability of public debt and therefore the well-being of the public finances. This downward trend of the ‘r g’ differential was interrupted by the financial crisis, driven by a significant contraction in economic activity. This led to a positive spike in the differential of over 7 percentage points.

Yet the negative differential resumed in 2010 and continued up to the pandemic. Again, this is indicative of the macroeconomic and financial environments being supportive of the public finances. It was, however, largely driven by low interest rates rather than by economic growth.

Consequently, the negative ‘r g’ differential meant that the public sector could continue to run primary deficits during the 2010s, despite the now much higher debt-to-GDP ratio. Yet, weak growth was placing limits on this. Chart 4 indeed shows that primary deficits fell across the decade (click here for a PowerPoint).

The pandemic and beyond

The pandemic saw the ‘r g’ differential again turn markedly positive, averaging 7 percentage points in the four quarters from Q2 of 2020. While the differential again turned negative, the debt-to-GDP ratio had also increased substantially because of large-scale fiscal interventions. This made the negative differential even more important for the sustainability of the public finances. The question is how long the negative differential can last.

Looking forward, the fiscal arithmetic is indeed uncertain and worryingly is likely to be less favourable. Interest rates have risen and, although inflationary pressures may be easing somewhat, interest rates are likely to remain much higher than during the past decade. Geopolitical tensions and global fragmentation pose future inflationary concerns and a further drag on growth.

As well as the short-term concerns over growth, there remain long-standing issues of low productivity which must be tackled if the growth of the UK economy’s potential output is to be raised. These concerns all point to the important ‘r g’ differential become increasingly less negative, if not positive. If so the fiscal arithmetic could mean increasingly hard maths for policymakers.

Articles

Data

Questions

  1. What is meant by each of the following terms: (a) net borrowing; (b) primary deficit; (c) net debt?
  2. Explain how the following affect the path of the public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio: (a) interest rates; (b) economic growth; (c) the existing debt-to-GDP ratio.
  3. Which factors during the 2010s were affecting the fiscal arithmetic of public debt positively, and which negatively?
  4. Discuss the prospects for the fiscal arithmetic of public debt in the coming years.
  5. Assume that a country has an existing public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio of 60 percent.
    (a) Using the ‘rule of thumb’ for public debt dynamics, calculate the approximate primary balance it would need to run in the coming year if the expected average real interest rate on the debt were 3 per cent and real economic growth were 2 per cent?
    (b) Repeat (a) but now assume that real economic growth is expected to be 4 per cent.
    (c) Repeat (a) but now assume that the existing public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio is 120 per cent.
    (d) Using your results from (a) to (c) discuss the factors that affect the fiscal arithmetic of the growth of public-sector debt.

On the 14th May the IMF published its latest Fiscal Monitor. The key message coming out of this was the need for countries to reduce their public debt ratios, i.e. public debt relative to GDP. Specifically, the IMF is arguing that public debt ratios should be reduced to their ‘post-crisis levels’. In effect, this means countries need to undertake fiscal consolidation. The IMF recognises that the pace of fiscal consolidation should reflect underlying fiscal and macroeconomic conditions, but warns of the dangers of not doing so especially in those countries where the credibility of the current and medium-term fiscal position is weakest.

Underpinning the IMF’s argument for fiscal consolidation is their concern that higher public debt ratios necessitate higher interest rates in order to entice investors to purchase government debt. In those countries with weak fiscal credibility, a sizeable interest rate premium may be needed to entice investors to hold government debt over other types of investments. For instance, we have seen how the markets reacted to the perceived lack of fiscal credibility in Greece and how a series of measures, as discussed in Fixing the Euro: a long term solution or mere sticking plaster were needed to both restore normality to debt markets and to prevent contagion in markets for other country’s public debt.

The IMF argues that the impact of higher interest rates from high public debt-to-GDP ratios would be to reduce an economy’s potential growth. The mechanism by which this would happen would primarily be a reduction of labour productivity growth resulting from lower levels of investment and, hence, from slower growth in the country’s capital stock.

In short, the IMF is arguing that without credible fiscal consolidation plans, countries – particularly advanced economies – run a real risk of restricting their rate of economic growth over the longer-term. Of course, the challenge is to implement fiscal consolidation plans that protect short-term growth by cementing the current economic recovery but do not hinder longer-term growth. Now that is a real challenge!

Report

Fiscal Monitor, May 14 2010 IMF

Articles

IMF Says Rising Public Debt Risk ‘Cannot Be Ignored’ Bloomberg Businessweek, Sandrine Rastello (14/5/10)
US faces one of the biggest crunches in the world – IMF Telegraph, Edmund Conway (14/5/10)
IMF says that developed countries must curb their deficits BBC News (14/5/10)
Outlook for rich economies worsening – IMF Eurasia Review (14/5/10)
Britain’s public debt falls under IMF focus Financial Times, Alan Beattie (15/5/10)
Advanced Economies Face Tougher, Not Impossible, Fiscal Adjustment MarketNews.com, Heather Scott (14/5/10)
A good squeeze The Economist (31/3/10)

Data

IMF Data and Statistic Portal IMF
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission

Questions

  1. Evaluate the argument put forward by the IMF that fiscal consolidation is necessary to prevent harming long-term economic growth.
  2. What are the economic dangers of consolidating a country’s fiscal position too quickly?
  3. What do you understand by short-run and long-term economic growth?
  4. What do you understand by potential growth?
  5. What could a government do to increase the perceived credibility of its fiscal position?

’The steepest and longest recession of any developed country since World War II.’ This has been the case for Ireland, which has seen national income fall by 20% since 2007. Many countries across the globe have experienced pretty bad recessions, but what makes Ireland stand out is how it has been dealt with.

In the UK, the government has continued spending in a bid to stimulate the economy and to use Gordon Brown’s phrase from 2008, we have aimed to ‘spend our way out of recession’. Ireland, however, did not have that option. With too much borrowing, Ireland was unable to stimulate the economy and needed to cut its debts in order to maintain its credibility in the eurozone. Last year, significant cuts in government spending were accompanied by tax rises equal to 5% of GDP. Similar action is to be expected in the UK following the election, where popular benefits may have to be reduced, as transfer payments do account for the majority of government spending. Whoever is in government following the election will have some hard decisions to make and everyone will be affected. Read the article below and listen to the interview and think about what the UK can learn from Ireland.

Irish lessons for the UK (including interview) BBC Stephanomics (9/4/10)

Questions

  1. In the interview, Brian Lenihan said that the UK was expecting too much from the falling value of sterling. What was the UK expecting following significant depreciations in the value of sterling and why has that not happened?
  2. What is a deflationary spiral? Why has it caused Ireland’s public debt to rise so much?
  3. Why does Brian Lenihan argue that there are limits to how much taxes can be increased? What are diminishing returns to taxation?
  4. Would the UK be any better off had we joined the euro? What about other countries: would they have benefited had we joined the euro?

It’s not just the roads in the UK that were frozen, as the Bank of England unsurprisingly decided to keep interest rates frozen at 0.5%. Furthermore, many economists do not expect to see interest rates increase for some time. Roger Bootle has predicted that rates could stay low for up to 5 years and this will contribute to a continuing weak pound and spell further trouble for importers and their customers.

The Bank of England also left its money-creation programme of ‘quantitative easing’ unchanged, but next month it will have to decide whether to extend quantitative easing beyond the limits of £200 billion that it set back in November.

Whilst we are supposedly beginning our economic recovery – with 2009 quarter 4 figures showing the first rise in output since the first quarter of 2008 – its strength remains questionable. Indeed, the rise in output in the last three months of 2009 was a mere 0.1%. So how important are interest rates in helping to sustain the recovery? Can they really pull us out of the recession by remaining at just 0.5%? Read the articles below which look at freezing interest rates and quantitative easing.

FTSE unaffected by interest rate decision In the News (7/1/10)
Freeze on UK interest rates BBC News (7/1/10)
Bank of England may raise interest rates as soon as March, leading economist predicts Telegraph (7/1/10)
Interest rates and quantitative easing on hold Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/1/10)
Bank of England extends quantitative easing by £25bn – but is it enough? Guardian, Larry Elliott (5/11/10)
Questions for QE BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (7/1/10)
Interest rates could stay low for 5 years, says Bootle BBC News (7/1/10)

Questions

  1. How do low interest rates contribute to a weak pound? How does this affect exporters and importers?
  2. What is quantitative easing? Should the QE programme be extended? What are the arguments for and against this in terms of economic recovery and public debt?
  3. How much of an impact do you think the recession will have on government policy over the next few months?
  4. Explain the transmission mechanisms by which changes in interest rates affect the goods market.
  5. If the Bank of England were not independent, what do you think would be happening to interest rates?

Well no-one can say that Gordon Brown has had an easy ride: the war in Iraq, MPs’ expenses, flooding, strikes, unemployment, and of course a recession. Will the banking crisis and its knock-on effects prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back? Only time will tell.

The UK economy will be voting within the next few months and the elected party will play a crucial role in our economic recovery. Public debt reached £829.7 billion at the end of October (59.2% of GDP) and with falling tax revenue and rising government spending, it could get considerably higher. “State borrowing grew by £16.1 billion last month (August) – almost twice the entire budget for the 2012 Olympics.”

The outcome of the election will not only play a role in determining how the UK fares over the next few years in terms of our economic recovery, but it will also indicate the likely direction that policy will take towards areas such as education, healthcare, poverty, pensions, etc. The housing market is also likely to be significantly affected and not just by the election. With the end of the stamp duty holiday approaching, demand for housing may begin to fall in the new year, which could spell a fall in house prices.

No matter what happens, it will be interesting to see the direction of government policy over the next few years, given the spending cuts we are likely to experience.

Public debt hits £800 billion – the highest on record Times Online, Patrick Hosking (19/9/09)
Labour polls fuel talk of early election date Mirror News, James Lyons (14/12/09)
Pre-election politics dictate the Bank of England’s economic policy The Independent, Stephen King (14/12/09)
David Cameron and Labour ready for ‘snap election’ BBC News (13/12/09)
So who said what to whom? The truth about the cuts debate Independent, Steve Richards (15/12/09)
Is UK government debt really that high? BBC News, Richard Anderson (22/12/09)

For data on public-sector finances, see:
Public Sector National Statistics Office for National Statistics

For a lighthearted look at the relationship between elections and the economy (in the context of the Philippines), see:
Election and other economic boosters Manilla Bulletin Publishing Corporation, Fred Lobo (14/12/09)

Questions

  1. How are economics and politics related? Think about how the up-coming election is likely to affect government policy and why.
  2. What are the main economic policies proposed by the Labour government? How do these aim to help the UK economy recover?
  3. What are the main economic policies proposed by the Conservative government? Will these policies be any more effective than Labour’s?
  4. The Conservative party is ahead in the polls at the moment: why do you think this is? To what extent has Labour’s popularity been affected by the way the government has dealt with the banking crisis?