sovereign debt

How rapidly should governments correct their fiscal deficits, which in the long run are unsustainable in the US, UK, Japan and many countries in the eurozone?

That is a question which continues to dominate the policy debate among economists. Rapid correction undoubtedly damages near term economic growth, but is intended to reduce the risk of a sovereign debt crisis coming suddenly out of the blue. Slow correction does the opposite. There is no theoretically “correct” policy on this. The result depends on how the near term loss of output should be weighed against the risk and consequences of a fiscal crisis, which is an empirical matter. (See this earlier blog: Assessing the risk of a financial crisis, which attempts to measure the risk of fiscal crisis.)

It is possible for reasonable economists to disagree about this, and for the “right” policy to be different in different countries. However, occasionally a piece of research comes along which changes the “dial” on the debate, and I believe that applies to the important Brookings Paper published last week by Brad DeLong and Larry Summers. This paper, which is well summarised here and here, essentially implies that the trade-off between near-term GDP growth and the probability of fiscal crisis can be irrelevant, because temporary fiscal expansions, at a time when interest rates are at the zero bound, are eventually self-financing.  

How much government debt is too much government debt? That question is pertinent in most economies today, but is especially pertinent in the US, where Congress is debating whether to raise the government debt ceiling, and if so on what terms. Unless economists can give sensible advice on the appropriate maximum level for public debt, much of the debate on budgetary policy is based on little more than political bias or, even worse, gut feeling dressed up as expert opinion. 

Normally, I write a summary of the week’s major economic events on a Sunday morning. This week I am going to leave the heart-rending events in Japan to be covered by the news teams, and instead focus on two other developments which have important ramifications for the global economy – the slowdown in China, which is becoming increasingly accepted by a previously sceptical economics profession; and the moderately promising deal on sovereign debt which was announced by EU leaders in the early hours of Saturday morning. 

Although the European Summit reached agreement on how to develop the bail-out mechanism for sovereign countries after 2013, it was an agreement about process rather than content. Germany remained adamant that there would be no fiscal transfers to troubled economies, and that the best way forward is further fiscal consolidation, along with plans for the private sector to share in any losses after a sovereign default. EU finance ministers have been charged with filling in the blanks by 31 March, 2011 – if the markets are ready to wait that long. I am not confident that they will be. Nor do I believe that the present path is necessarily in the best interests of Germany itself, let alone other EU member states.