Economics

In the previous three posts in this series, I have argued that large fiscal deficits are a more or less inevitable concomitant of post-financial crisis deleveraging by the private sector. Moreover, I have argued, substituting a solvent debtor (the government or taxpayers, in general) for insolvent (or illiquid) private ones is feasible and desirable in an economy going through a balance-sheet recession. It is therefore quite possible to get out of debt by going into it, because they are not the same debtors. And the distribution of the debt, not its level, is what matters.

Needless to say, arguments can be made against this point of view and alternative policies considered. But, before considering those arguments and alternatives, it is crucial to stress one point: no pain-free escapes from the consequences of a huge credit boom and consequent private sector debt overhang exist. We are trading off bad alternatives. Read more

The role of fiscal deficits in deleveraging

“You can’t get out of debt by adding more debt.” How often have you read this sentence? It is a cliché. I am going to argue that, to a first approximation, this obvious, even banal, statement is the reverse of the truth, which is that the only way to get out of debt is to add more debt. What matters is who adds the debt and in what form. To put it more bluntly, it depends on who these“you” are.

As I have done in two previous posts on the theme of “balance-sheet recessions”, I am going to focus on the US, because it is the most important country now going through the post-crisis deleveraging process.

Let us start with an obvious and crucial fact: at the world level, net debt is zero. For an individual country, net debt is how much foreigners have lent to residents less how much residents have lent to foreigners. In the case of the US, net debt at the end of 2011 was 44 per cent of GDP, roughly an eighth of gross debt. Read more

Economic crises bring forth a great deal of nonsense. One of the most frequent bits of such nonsense is the idea that the countries in crisis in the eurozone are full of idle people, while the countries that are not in crisis are full of hard-working ones.

This, it so happens, is the reverse of the truth. Indeed, if one went by the hours worked on average by each worker, one would conclude that the fewer hours  people work, the less crisis-prone will be the country.

Here is a relevant chart for the eurozone, which comes from the Conference Board database I have frequently used. The reader will note that the crisis-hit countries are in the middle or right of the chart. (I have excluded former communist countries, which have somewhat different characteristics: most are much poorer than those listed below. But, again, the people in crisis-hit ex-communist countries, such as Estonia and Latvia, tended to work long hours.) Read more

I look at this through the lens of “sectoral financial balances”, an analytical framework learned from the work of the late Wynne Godley. The essential idea is that since income has to equal expenditure for the economy, as a whole, (which is the same things as saying that saving equals investment) so the sums of the difference between income and expenditures of each of the sectors of the economy must also be zero. These differences can also be described as “financial balances”. Thus, if a sector is spending less than its income it must be accumulating (net) claims on other sectors.

The crucial point is that, since sectoral balances must sum to zero, a rise in the deficit of one sector must be matched by an offsetting change in the others. It follows that if the fiscal deficit is increasing, the sum of the surpluses of the other sectors of the economy must be increasing in a precisely offsetting manner. Read more

My column this week We still have that sinking feeling examined the progress of post-crisis deleveraging, focusing on the US. I would like to elaborate on this issue.

 The chart attached to the column showed the cumulative total of gross private sector debt, relative to gross domestic product. In the chart below, I show total debt, including government debt, relative to GDP. The reader will notice that the economy as a whole has deleveraged, despite the rising debt of the government. Read more