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A Baker’s Dozen of Reasons Not to Worry about Government Debt

(EDIT: It’s not sufficiently clear in the original post, but I wrote this as a sort of compendium of arguments one might use in response to claims that the federal debt is a binding constraint on new spending. I’m not saying these are the best or only reasons to reject the idea that federal government cannot borrow more. I’m saying that these are arguments that seem to have some traction in the mainstream policy world, such that you could use them in a newspaper op-ed or conversation with a congress member’s staff. Also, a premise here is that there are urgent needs we want the public sector to spend more on. Apart from the last couple, these are not arguments for more public dbet as an end in itself.) Why might larger budget deficits be ok? There are a number of reasons why

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(EDIT: It’s not sufficiently clear in the original post, but I wrote this as a sort of compendium of arguments one might use in response to claims that the federal debt is a binding constraint on new spending. I’m not saying these are the best or only reasons to reject the idea that federal government cannot borrow more. I’m saying that these are arguments that seem to have some traction in the mainstream policy world, such that you could use them in a newspaper op-ed or conversation with a congress member’s staff. Also, a premise here is that there are urgent needs we want the public sector to spend more on. Apart from the last couple, these are not arguments for more public dbet as an end in itself.)

Why might larger budget deficits be ok?

There are a number of reasons why economists, policymakers and advocates believe that increased public borrowing is not something to be afraid of. As I’ll discuss below, the fundamental factor linking most of these reasons is the idea that the US economy is generally operating below capacity.

When we think about the fiscal balance – the difference between government spending and government revenue – we always have to keep in mind that it has two sides: the real side and the financial side. Whenever the government increases spending, it has two kinds of effects. First, all else equal, it increases the amount of government debt in circulation. And second, it increases demand for goods and services, both directly when the government buys them and indirectly as government spending creates incomes for private businesses and households. 

To put it another way, for government to successfully raise spending without raising taxes, two things have to be true. First, someone – banks, wealthy families, foreign countries – has to be willing to hold the additional debt that the government issues. And second, someone has to be prepared to sell whatever it is that the government is trying to buy. If we are asking what kinds of limits there might be to deficit spending, we have to think about both sides. A government’s spending may face financial constraints, if people are unwilling to hold more of its debt; or real constraints, if the economy cannot produce the additional goods and services it is trying to buy.

Some people who think higher deficits are not a problem – particularly those associated with Modern Monetary Theory – believe that the US federal government never faces financial constraints, so only the real constraints matter. Others believe that the federal government might in principle face financial constraints, but there are good reasons to think that they are not an issue today. For policy purposes, the difference between these positions may not be very important.

On the real constraint side, the essential question is how close the economy is to potential output, or full employment. (The two terms are used interchanegably.) In an economy operating at potential, government can only increase its spending f the private sector reduces its spending. This “crowding out” is the real cost of increased public spending. In an economy below potential, on the other hand, the goods and services purchased by increased public spending come from mobilizing unused productive capacity, so there is no crowding out. In. fact, if the fiscal multiplier is big enough (greater than one) then increased purchases of goods and services by the public sector will result in more goods and services being purchased by the private sector as well.

Below, I lay out a baker’s dozen of related arguments for why, from a macroeconomic perspective, we should welcome increased debt-financed public spending. Some people who believe in greater public borrowing would accept all of these arguments; some only some of them. 

Real-economy arguments for more public borrowing

1. The economy generally operates below potential. Over the past 30 years, there have been three recessions, each followed by a long period of weak growth and high unemployment. By official measures, in 10 of the past 30 years GDP has been at least two points below potential; there have been only six months when it was more than two points above potential. And there has been no periods of high inflation. This suggests that in general, the economy is not running at full capacity; there is additional productive potential that could be mobilized by higher public spending, without crowding out private spending. In that sense, there is no real cost to higher public spending, and no need top offset it with higher taxes. Even better, higher public spending will help close the output gap and raise private spending as well.

2. There are long run forces pushing down demand. Larry Summers famously reintroduced into the economic conversation the idea of secular stagnation – that there is a long-run tendency for private spending to fall short of the economy’s productive potential. There are many reasons we might expect private spending to be lower, relative to national income, in the future than in the past. Among these: increased monopoly power; the shift toward information-based rather than resource-intensive production; increased shareholder power; a more unequal distribution of income; slower population growth; and the satiation of demand for market consumption, in favor of leisure and nonmarket activities. (The first three of these factors tend to reduce investment spending, the last  three consumption spending.)  If this idea is correct, the demand shortfalls of the past thirty years are not an anomaly, and we should expect them to grow larger in the future.

3. Potential output is mismeasured; we are still well below it. Even by the conventional measures of unemployment and potential output, the US economy has spent far more time in recent decades below target than above it. But if the target is mismeasured, the problem may be even worse. There are good reasons to think that both productivity and laborforce growth over the past decade have been depressed by weak demand. If this is the case, the US economy even at the height of a supposed boom, may in fact be operating well below potential today. The fact that  even with measured unemployment below 4 percent wage growth has accelerated only modestly, and inflation has not accelerated at all, is important evidence for this view.

4. Recessions and jobless recoveries have occurred repeatedly in past, will occur again in the future. Whether or not the US economy is at potential today, the current expansion will not continue forever. Recessions have occurred in the past and will occur in the future. Many forecasts believe there is a high risk of recession is likely in the relatively near future; the fact that the Fed is moving toward cutting rates suggests that they share this view. When thinking about what fiscal balance is appropriate, we need to consider not just where the economy is today but where it is likely to be in coming years.

5. Monetary policy is not effective at maintaining full employment. In the past, weak demand and recessions weren’t considered an argument for more public spending because it was assumed that a central bank following the correct policy rule could quickly return the economy to full employment. But it is increasingly clear that central banks do not have the tools (and perhaps the willingness) to precent extended periods of weak demand. It is increasingly recognized that fiscal policy is also required to stabilize demand. In his July testimony before Congress, Fed chair Jerome Powell said explicitly that in the event of another deep recession, the Fed would need help from fiscal policy. One important reason for this is the problem of the zero lower bound – since the policy interest rate cannot be set below zero, there is a limit to how far the Fed can lower it in a recession.

6. It’s hard to ramp up public spending quickly in recession. Orthodox opinion has long been that fiscal policy is not as effective as monetary policy in a recession because it takes much longer to ramp up public spending than to cut interest rates. While the experience of the Great Recession undermined conventional wisdom on many points, it supported it on this one. The ARRA stimulus bill was supposed to direct spending to “shovel-ready” projects, but in fact the majority of the infrastructure spending funded by the bill came several years after it passed. There are many institutional obstacles to increasing public spending rapidly. This means that if we need higher public spending in a recession, the best thing is to have higher spending all the time. If that leads to an overheating economy in the boom, that is an easier problem for the Fed to solve then a deep recession.

7. The costs of getting demand wrong are not symmetrical. Traditionally policymakers have defined their goal as keeping output as close to potential as possible. But it is increasingly clear that the costs of demand falling short are greater than the costs of demand overshooting potential. One reason for this is the previous point – that conventional policy has an easier time reining in excessive demand than stimulating weak demand. (As the old saying has it, “you can’t push on a string.”) A second reason is that demand has effects that go beyond the level of output. In particular, strong demand and low unemployment redistribute income toward workers from owners, and toward lower-wage workers in particular. Periods of weak demand, conversely, reduce the share of income going to workers. If we think the upward redistribution of income over the past generation is a problem, we should prefer to let demand overshoot potential than fall short of it.

8. Weak demand may have permanent effects on potential output. Traditionally, economists saw the economy’s long-term growth as being completely independent of demand conditions. People spending more money might raise production and employment today, but the long-term growth of potential output depended on structural factors – demographics, technological change, and so on. More recently, however, there has been renewed interest in the idea that weak demand can reduce potential output, an effect known as hysteresis. high unemployment may lead more people to drop out of the laborforce, while low unemployment may lead more people to enter the laborforce (or immigrate from abroad.) Strong demand may also lead to faster productivity growth. If hysteresis is real, then demand shortfalls don’t reduce output and employment this year, but potentially many years in the future as well. This is another reason to be more worried about demand falling short than overshooting, hence another reason to prefer a more expansionary fiscal stance, which normally implies more public borrowing.

Financial arguments for more public borrowing

9. With low interest rates, debt does not snowball. Traditionally, concerns about the financing of government spending have focused on whether debt is “sustainable” – whether debt levels will stabilize as a fraction of GDP, or rise without limit. When interest rates are greater than GDP growth rates, this implies a hard limit to government borrowing – to keep the debt-GDP ratio on a stable path, a deficit in one year must be made up for by a larger surplus in a future year. Otherwise, the interest on the existing debt will imply more and more borrowing, with the debt-GDP ratio rising without limit. But when interest rates on government debt are below growth rates, as they have been for the past 25 years, the debt ratio will stabilize on its own – deficits do not have to be offset with surpluses. This makes much of the earlier concern with debt sustainability obsolete.

10. There is good reason to think interest rates will remain low. There are a number of reasons to think that interest rates on public debt are likely to remain low, even if debt ratios rise considerably higher. First, low interest rates reflect the conditions of chronic weak demand discussed above, for two reasons. First, low investment means less demand for borrowed funds. And second, weak demand means that the interest rate set by the central bank is likely to be low. A second reason to expect low interest rates to continue is that the past ten years have repeatedly falsified predictions of bond vigilantes driving up the rates on government debt. Prior to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, many observers expected a catastrophic flight by investors away from US government debt and the dollar, but in fact, the crisis saw a steep fall interest rates on government debt and a rise in the dollar, as investors all over the world rushed to the safety of Treasury debt. Similarly, in Europe, even in the worst crisis-hit countries like Greece, interest rates are at their lowest point in history. Similarly Japan, with one of the highest debt0-GDP ratios ever recorded (about triple that of the US) continues to borrow at very low rats. Third, the experience of the past ten years have made it clear that even if investors were to demand higher interest rates on government debt, modern central banks can easily overcome this. The most dramatic illustration of this came in the summer of 2012, when a public statement by European Central bank chief Mario Draghi “we will do whatever it takes, and believe me, it will be enough”) reversed the spike in interest rates in countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal practically overnight. Finally, the prices of bonds — with hardly any premium for 30 year bonds over 5 and 10 year maturities — show that private investors do not expect a rise in interest rates any time in the foreseeable future.

11. With hysteresis, higher public borrowing can pay for itself. Even if we are concerned about lowering the debt-GDP ratio, the existence of hysteresis (point 8 above) means that cutting public borrowing is necessarily the right way to get there. In a world where the long-term path of GDP depends on aggregate demand, austerity can be self-defeating even in its own narrow financial terms. If lower public spending reduces demand, then it can lead to lower GDP, potentially raising the debt to GDP ratio even if it succeeds in reducing debt. Greece offers a clear example of this – the fiscal surpluses between 2010 and 2015 succeeded in reducing government debt by 5 percent, but the deep austerity contributed to a fall in GDP of 25 percent. So the debt-GDP ratio actually rose. Similarly, if debt-financed public spending leads to faster growth, the debt-GDP ratio may end up lower than otherwise. 

12. Federal debt is an important asset for financial markets. The points up to now have been arguments for why higher public debt is acceptable. But there is also an argument that increased public debt would be a positive good. Financial markets depend on Treasury debt as a safe, liquid asset. Federal government debt offers an absolutely safe asset that can always be sold quickly and at a predictable price – something that is extremely valuable for banks and other financial institutions. There is a strong argument that the growth of the mortgage-backed security market in the 2000s was fundamentally driven by a scarcity of government debt – many financial institutions wanted (or were compelled by regulation) to hold a substantial amount of ultrasafe, liquid debt, and there was not enough government debt in circulation to meet this demand. So financial markets came up with mortgage-backed securities as a supposed alternative – with disastrous results. Similarly, after the recession, one argument for why the recovery was so slow was a “safe asset shortage” – financial institutions were unwilling to make risky loans without  holdings of ultrasafe assets to balance them. While these concerns have receded today, there is still good reason to expect a “flight to safety” toward Treasury debt in the event of a new crisis, and government debt remains important for settling many financial contracts and pricing other assets. So strange as it may sound, there is a serious argument – made by, among others, Nobel prize winner Jean Tirole in his book on financial liquidity — that increased government borrowing would make the financial system more stable and increase access to credit for other borrowers.

13. Federal debt is an important asset for the rest of the world. Federal debt is an important asset not just for the US financial system, but for the rest of the world. In today’s dollar-based international system, the great majority of international trade and investment is denominated in dollars, and most foreign-exchange transactions involve dollars. As a result, central banks (and private financial institutions) all over the world hold foreign-exchange reserves primarily in the form of dollars. These dollar reserves are mainly held in the form of Treasury debt. Close to half of federal debt is now held abroad, mainly as reserves by foreign governments. These holdings are essential for the stability of the international financial system – without adequate reserves, countries are vulnerable to sudden flows of “hot money” out of their countries. As Barry Eichengreen – perhaps the leading economic historian of the international financial system, — has noted, a deep market for government is an essential requirement for a currency to serve as the global reserve currency. If the US is going to be a responsible partner for the rest of the world — and continue reaping the benefits of being at the center of the global economy — it needs to provide an adequate supply of safe government debt for the rest of the world to hold as reserves.

 (I wrote this document for internal use at the Roosevelt Institute. Figured I might as well put it up here as well. Obviously it would benefit from links to supporting material, which I may add at some point.)

About JW Mason
JW Mason
Assistant professor of economics at John Jay College - CUNY, and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. RT = Read This

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