Carmen Reinhart of the University of Maryland talks to Romesh Vaitilingam about the sequencing of the cycle of debt build-ups – from private debt surges to banking crises to sovereign debt crises – and the four ‘deadly D’s’ that once again threaten many governments as a consequence of the current crisis – deficits, debt, downgrade and default. The interview was recorded at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference at the University of Surrey in March 2010.
Low interest rates and secular stagnation: Is debt a missing link?
Claudio Borio, Piti Disyatat25 June 2014
Real interest rates have fallen to historic lows, and some economists are concerned that an era of secular stagnation has begun. This column highlights the role of policy frameworks and financial factors – particularly debt – in linking low real interest rates and sluggish economic growth. Policies that do not lean against booms but ease aggressively and persistently in busts induce a downward bias in interest rates over time and an upward bias in debt levels – something akin to a debt trap. Low real interest rates may thus be self-reinforcing and not always ‘natural’.
Today, the US government can borrow for ten years at a fixed rate of around 2.5%. Adjusted for expected inflation, this translates into a real borrowing cost of under 0.5%. A year ago, real rates were actually negative. With low interest rates dominating the developed world, many worry that an era of secular stagnation has begun (Summers 2013).
The debt-growth link is essential to today's marcoeconomic policy choices. This Vox Talk discusses new evidence based on data on total public debt for 105 economies between 1972 and 2009 and two centuries of data for the UK, US, Sweden and Japan. There is no convincing proof that austerity works and that it is dangerous for policy makers to pretend otherwise.
Stijn Claessens talks to Viv Davies about the recent IMF book titled 'Global Crises: Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses', co-edited with M Ayhan Kose, Luc Laeven, and Fabian Valencia. The book provides a comprehensive overview of current research into financial crises and the policy lessons learned. They discuss crisis prevention and management, and the crisis in the Eurozone. The interview was recorded in April 2014.
Fiscal adjustment and growth: Beware of the credit constraints
Emanuele Baldacci, Sanjeev Gupta, Carlos Mulas-Granados31 March 2014
The recent debate on the link between austerity and growth has focused on the short run. This column discusses recent research into the link between fiscal consolidation and medium-term growth under different financial conditions. If credit is not available to consumers and investors, private demand is less able to compensate for cutbacks in public demand, so large spending cuts can have a negative effect on growth. Difficult financial conditions probably explain why fiscal adjustments that worked in the 1990s have not produced similar beneficial effects on growth in recent years.
In the aftermath of the recent financial crisis, the discussion of the effects of fiscal adjustment on economic growth has intensified. While some scholars have focused on the characteristics of the fiscal consolidation needed to bring public debt down from historically high levels, others have examined the effects of alternative strategies on economic performance. The VoxEU debate aptly covered in “Has Austerity Gone Too Far?” (Corsetti 2012) sums up the conflicting positions.
Marco Buti, Maria Demertzis, João Nogueira Martins30 March 2014
Although progress has been made on resolving the Eurozone crisis – vulnerable countries have reduced their current-account deficits and implemented some reforms – more still needs to be done. This column argues for a ‘consistent trinity’ of policies: structural reforms within countries, more symmetric macroeconomic adjustment across countries, and a banking union for the Eurozone.
As argued in an earlier commentary, the financial crisis exposed important economic inconsistencies in the way that EMU operated.1 Although progress has been made, the reality is that more needs to be done. A number of countries still need to consolidate their public finances further, and also implement structural reforms to promote growth and sustain satisfactory welfare systems. At the same time, there is a need for vulnerable countries to ensure consistency between regaining competitiveness and the sustainability of private and public debts.
Privatisation and debt: Lessons from Greece’s fiasco
Paolo Manasse31 January 2014
Sales of state-owned assets have been proposed as a way for highly-indebted countries to ease the pain of fiscal consolidation. This column argues that, despite the potential merits of privatisation in terms of long-run efficiency, in practice it is unlikely to improve short-run fiscal solvency. Since governments rarely alienate control rights, the efficiency gains from privatisations are often small. Moreover, financial markets may not fully reflect these gains – particularly during a financial crisis. The implication is that the Troika policy of linking financial assistance to privatisations is inappropriate and self-defeating.
In the midst of the European debt crisis, it is tempting to think that high-debt countries could alleviate the recessionary impact of the budget-consolidation process by selling (poorly managed) assets and stakes in their state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and by using the proceeds to buy back their debts (Hope 2011). In addition to providing a cushion for ongoing adjustment programmes and improving solvency, privatisations are deemed to entail long-term efficiency and welfare gains by attracting foreign direct investment and managerial expertise, thus spurring competition and growth.
Greater inequality and household borrowing? New evidence from household data
Olivier Coibion, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, Marianna Kudlyak, John Mondragon29 January 2014
One popular explanation for the increase in US household debt in the years before the subprime mortgage crisis is that households with stagnating incomes borrowed more to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. This column presents recent research that questions this explanation. Low-income households in high-inequality regions in fact borrowed relatively little compared to similar households in low-inequality regions. A theoretical model in which greater local income inequality facilitates the screening of loan applicants makes predictions that are consistent with the data.
Jonathan Heathcote, Gianluca Violante, Fabrizio Perri
The financial crisis of 2008–09 was preceded by an exceptional rise in borrowing by US households, accounted for primarily by a rise in mortgage debt. There are two main views about the source of this ‘great leveraging’:
The rise in borrowing reflected ‘credit supply’ factors.
Proponents point to progress in information technology (Sanchez 2009) and rising financialisation of debt (especially mortgages) as increasing the supply of credit, particularly to low-income and high-risk households (Drozd and Serrano-Padial 2013).
Democratic governments tend to accumulate excessive debt. This column proposes a new rule – the ‘Catenarian Fiscal Discipline’ – which allows a fiscally disciplined incumbent to limit the debt-making of the next officeholder. This way, fiscal discipline today can lead to fiscal discipline in the future. Such a rule would require that we broaden our notion of representative democracy by recognising the fact that a current government already has various implicit ways of limiting what its elected successors can do.
Limiting the accumulation of public debt in democracies has always been a problem, but it has become a particularly pressing one in the last few decades. While there are normative justifications for public debt-making – such as letting automatic stabilisers and tax-smoothing measures operate (Barro 1979) – political processes tend to push public debt to levels that are likely to be socially undesirable.
Public debt and economic growth: There is no ‘tipping point’
Markus Eberhardt, Andrea F Presbitero17 November 2013
The idea that there is a common tipping point in the relationship between public debt and economic growth is still widespread. However, this is likely due to a misinterpretation of the existing evidence. Once we allow for the relationship between debt and growth to be country-specific, there is limited evidence supporting the presence of a within-countries debt threshold.
The presence of a common threshold, or ‘tipping point’ – beyond which the detrimental impact of debt on growth is significant, or significantly increases – is currently taken as given in many policy circles. In the US, although many political battles impinge on the Congressional debate over the debt ceiling and the resulting government shutdown of October 2013, this somewhat reflected a widespread belief that debt is dangerous, and that fiscal austerity represents the only way of restoring sustainable growth.