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Miles Kimball and Yichuan Wang find that high government debt doesn’t cause low GDP growth, and Kimball says he finds that surprising, as does Matt Yglesias. But as I suggested in a post last month, I’m not really surprised by this at all.

Governments tax or borrow. The former is withdrawing money from the economy in exchange for nothing (or perhaps a promise not to sanction the taxed) while the latter withdraws money from the economy in exchange for a piece of paper. That’s debt! Evil, evil, debt! Oh, no!

Wait, let’s start over.

The goverment decides it wants to do something it isn’t already doing, and therefore needs to command a higher share of total social production going forward than it has been. Developed-world governments don’t directly commandeer social resources, they claim through the proxy of money, by spending it. Assuming an economy at full capacity (whatever that means), if the government commandeers resources by spending money without removing any money from the economy then you’d have inflation, unless the central bank raises interest rates substantially, which would likely have undesireable negative effects. So the government attempts to roughly balance the resources claims it makes using money by withdrawing an equivalent amount of money from society. Sometimes it does this through taxes, which has some desireable properties (no future obligations on the state, can be used Pigovianly) and some undesirable ones (unintended consequences, involuntary, discourages desireable activity). Borrowing also has some desireable properties (voluntary, compensates those who part with their money) and some undesireable properties (obligates the state).

Therefore, there are two key intertwined questions to be asked about this new government activity, which remember is centrally about taking some resources deployed previously to some private purpose and redirecting them to some other, presumably public purpose – is the new activity more valuable than the activity(s) it is supplanting, and how is it being financed? They are intertwined because the latter question informs the former.

Let’s say we all agree that this new government project – let’s say it’s a SUPERTRAIN, for fun – is widely considered to be of higher value than the marginal private activity it supplants regardless of how it is funded. The government could raise taxes to fund it, but unless it is taxing something undesireable (like carbon or booze or Kardashians) this would have the drawback of incurring some "deadweight loss," not to mention other unintended consequences. It could also borrow the money, which would have two consequences. Firstly, it would supplant something different – rather than raising the cost of work or carbon emissions, it would be more likely to supplant a capital investment of some kind somewhere in the economy. Secondly, it would obligate the government.

And to what would it obligate the government? Key to understanding this is that governments, unlike Lannisters, never pay their debts. They cleverly disguise this fact by paying their debts in full and on time. Huh? From the perspective of a borrower, you get your interest payments, and then your principal in full. But from the perspective of a government, you don’t pay the principal back out of tax revenue, you pay it by rolling over the debt and issuing new debt in the amount of the principal. This works because of NGDP growth (both the RGDP growth and inflationary components). In fact, we’re still likely rolling over all the debt we incurred from WWII, which back then was 110% of NGDP but today is less than 2% of NGDP.

So really what the government does when it issues a bond is issue itself a negative perpetuity. And the key to understanding the value of a perpetuity is knowing the interest rate, since the PV = C/r. Therefore, the obligation on the government is much more dependent on the interest rate path than on the nominal coupon value.

But that interest rate path isn’t just some made-up thing – it’s fundamentally related to NGDP growth. Don’t believe me? Here’s the fed funds rate divided by the NGDP growth rate:

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So when recessions happen, the ratio spikes (and whether it spikes up or down is very interesting), but otherwise it’s very steady; if you exclude just the 12 of 223 periods where the absolute value of the ratio is greater than 3, you get an average of 0.8 and a standard deviation of 0.6.

So what does that mean? As interest rates grow, so does the obligation on the government – but it also implies that the government’s ability to meet that obligation is growing in tandem. Which suggests that, while governments cannot borrow limitlessly, the pain point at which government indebtedness begins to inflict structural economic harm is vastly higher than previous assumptions.

Japan, for example, is often cited as an example of government debt creating a huge drag/time bomb/giant vengeful lizard that is harming Japan’s economy. But since 1990, Japan’s debt/GDP ratio increased from 67% to 211% and GDP-per-capita…grew! Significantly! Not awesomely, not enough to catch-up with the US (in fact, it fell behind), but grow it did. Certainly more than you might think it would if the 90% monster were real and starting smashing major cities or something.

Many people have begun to worry whether the seemingly-inevitable Japanese debt crisis is nearing as yield have crept up. But yields have crept up because NGDP-growth-expectations have crept up. As long as they increase in tandem, contra Noah Smith, Japan should always be able to pay its debts.

And I’d be willing to put money/my reputation on this point. While Noah Smith is 100% right that bets != beliefs, I am nonetheless willing to agree in principle to any reasonably-valued bet that neither Japan nor the United States will default over any arbitrary time period. Any takers?


Ryan Avent says some things he probably considers uncontroversial, because he says so:

That’s because there are relatively uncontroversial ways in which high levels of government debt can and do affect growth. Government borrowing can crowd out private investment, induce uncomfortably high levels of inflation, and create a need for distortionary taxation.

I’m going to go ahead and say – some of this is at least somewhat controversial! A bold stance, indeed.

Let’s say the government wants to spend some money. The government can choose to finance it in two ways:

1) It can raise taxes.
2) It can borrow.

Obviously. But what does that mean?

In the first scenario, the government identifies a place where there is some money and takes it. It’s good to be the king.

In the second scenario, the government makes an offer – anyone who wants to patriotically volunteer their money to the government will get a series of small reward payments for many years, followed by the eventual full refund of their nominal volunteered sum.

Either way, the government has withdrawn an equal amount of money from society. The primary difference, it seems to me, is two-fold:

1) The money comes from different places.

2) In the latter scenario the government has obligated itself to future payments.

Item 1) is what’s usually paraphrased as "crowding out investment" – the presumption that money borrowed would have been put to use in ways that engender long-term growth, whereas money taxes would have come from mere "consumption." Regular readers (if you exist, that is) know I am not a fan of the saving/consuming dichotomy, but I am willing to indulge the idea that resources withdrawn by the private economy by government borrowing are systematically different than those withdrawn by government taxation. Let’s come back to this.

Can government borrowing "induce uncomfortably high levels of inflation?" Not if the Fed says it can’t! And the Fed has been pretty good at keeping inflation limited since the Volcker era.

Can government borrowing "create a need for distortionary taxation?" Sure! But so does taxing the money in the first place. If the government spends money and funds it all through taxes, there will be a lot of deadweight loss. If it funds at least some of it through borrowing, there will be presumably less deadweight loss since the money was coughed up voluntarily.

But look – here’s the data

Here’s real federal debt held by the public v. real federal interest payments since 1970:

Inline image 3

So, not a terribly correlated series.If you’re the naturally loggish type:

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Which shows a more correlated series at least during the 70s and 80s but note that starting in 1985 while the debt begins to rise and rise the total interest payments mostly stall out.

So, given the large increase in public federal debt over the last 30 years, we have seen decreased inflation, stagnant real interest payments (which means shrinking real interest payments as a share of GDP) and…so where’s the "crowding out?"

Any discussion of these issues without talking about the financial system, the central bank, the status quo ante of the macroeconomy, etc, isn’t very useful.

Matt Yglesias and Tim Fernholz have both written great stuff about how US government borrowing is supporting US household deleveraging, a process Fernholz calls the “invisible bailout.” And they’re right, and for important reasons – as Yglesias says:

But when the household sector tries to reduce its indebtedness it needs to do something to make that happen. Stacking up huge piles of money in the closet is not a very sound method. As an individual, you don’t really need to think about this. You save by either lending money to your bank or else by purchasing a financial asset (stock, ETF, mutual fund, bond) from someone else. But that just puts the money in the bank fault or in someone else’s closet. Ultimately the money saved has to go to something.

What’s really interesting about that, though, is that it’s also true on a global level and not just a national one. One of Fernholz’s charts shows that the US has net-delevered even relative to pre-crisis 2007 levels. This should not only give a lot of pause to American austerity pushers, but austerity pushers everywhere. For if the US is net-saving, somebody else is net-borrowing. Europe? Maybe. But as austerity gets pushed harder there then that means either somebody else is saving less or some other party is borrowing more or both. Just like we can’t all be net exporters, we can’t all be net savers. In some sense, all saving is simply being the counterparty to someone’s borrowing (since saving is an attempt to push current consumption into the future and borrowing is the opposite) and therefore if you’re not affecting net global indebtedness you’re just squeezing the balloon. But net global indebtedness should be driven by the desire to save, not the desire to borrow – as long as the world is accumulating capital and is looking for some kind of store of value or investment return then they’ll find something, but in the absence of that you’re not going to magically find money to borrow. So the real question we should all be answering is “given the current global demand for savings how can we allocate that capital?” not “how can we reduce the federal government’s borrowing?”

I think this is all getting a little confused by the Euro crisis. Not being able to run experiments like this is what makes macroeconomics such a headache, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that on Earth-beta where there was never a European monetary union there is no debt crisis in Europe and most developed country would be currently borrowing at super-low rates, which is in fact what we see elsewhere.

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