fiscal deficits

A commenter, A.N., objects to my argument that the big reason for the explosion in government bond yields in Spain was not its debt dynamics, which are remarkably like the UK’s, but because it does not have a lender of last resort, as the UK does.

He responds that the debt dynamics of France and Germany were just like Spain’s. But they were not similarly punished. In any case, the facts are clearly otherwise. These are the relevant data for the three mentioned countries. It is quite clear that Spanish debt dynamics are far worse than those of France and Germany. Read more

Roger Altman of Evercore partners is a friend of mine, a distinguished public servant and a respected financial expert. But his column “Blame bond markets, not politicians, for austerity” is, in my view, gravely mistaken. Read more

I recently looked at what happened to private financial balances inside the eurozone. Today’s post looks at what happened to the current account deficits. It fills out the broad story of the eurozone’s across-the-board shift into becoming a very large capital exporter. It is complementary to an excellent post by Gavyn Davies, who addresses the sources of the ongoing adjustment.

As it happens Michael Pettis, professor at Peking University, and author of the excellent book, The Great Rebalancing (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013) has a complementary post.

In this, he argues that Spain had no choice over what happened to it during the 2000-07 period, given the deliberate policies of Germany, which were aimed at generating a large current account surplus (“improving competitiveness” being the normal way of talking about this form of structural mercantilism). If one’s principal trading partner is seeking to generate a huge current account surplus and so exporting capital, he argues, then a country is effectively forced into running the counterpart deficits, whatever the consequences.

I agree with this analysis of what happened. Indeed, I have argued along these lines for several years, in trying to explain the roots of the eurozone crisis, which is a balance-of-payments cum financial crisis, of which fiscal deficits are a symptom, not, except in the case of Greece, a cause. Read more

I have argued in previous posts that the policy of letting the government deficits offset the natural post-crisis austerity of the private sector makes excellent sense, provided the country in question has a solvent government. I have argued, too, in the most recent post, that the objections to this policy are not decisive. What matters is making the best of bad alternatives.

Yet let us also look at alternative ways of accelerating deleveraging. Broadly there are two: capital transactions and default. The latter, in turn, comes in two varieties: plain vanilla default and inflationary default. Read more

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

I wrote a column on November 24 2011 entitled “Why cutting fiscal deficits is an assault on profits”. My point was summarised as follows: “If the government wishes to cut its deficits, other sectors must save less. The questions are ‘which ones’ and ‘how’. What the government has not admitted is that the only actors able to save less now are corporations. The government’s – not surprisingly, unstated – policy is to demolish corporate profits.”

This column was based on data for the sectoral financial balances in the UK and US. In this comment, I wish to elaborate on this theme, in three ways: first, I would like to show the charts from which my comments were drawn; second, I wish to describe the argument of a note by David Bowers of London’s Absolute Strategy Research (The Fiscal Risks to Corporate Free Cash Flow, November 17 2011), who has elaborated interestingly on this theme; and, finally, I want to consider the broader relevance of this way of thinking about macroeconomic adjustment. Read more