Why the Excitement About Debt?
Further to our recent discussions on this blog about the role of private finance and credit in our present crisis, we present a guest contribution from Ralph Musgrave, an economistÂ in the U.K.
National debts have risen recently, which has caused excessive and unnecessary consternation. The consternation is particularly unnecessary for countries which issue their own currency, and these are the countries considered here rather than individual members of the Eurozone.
The reality is that debt is little different to monetary base (Iâ€™ll abbreviate that to â€œmoneyâ€ henceforth). At least, government debt near maturity is almost indistinguishable from money. So there are essentially just two important questions in connection with debt and money. First, what is the optimum size of the total: â€œdebt plus moneyâ€. And second, what is the optimum split of this total as between the two?
As to the first question, money and debt are both financial assets in the hands of the private sector. The larger this total, the more the private sector will tend to spend. Thus ideally this total needs to be whatever size induces the private sector to spend at a rate that brings full employment. No government will ever achieve the latter ideal, but they should certainly aim for it.
As for the split between money and debt, what are the arguments for government running into debt at all? I suggest there arenâ€™t any. As regards the idea that governments need to borrow for stimulus purposes, that is nonsense. In other words, whatâ€™s the point of a government borrowing something (money) and paying interest for the privilege, when it can produce money at no cost and in limitless quantities any time? Incurring debt for stimulus purposes makes as much sense as neighbours taking in each otherâ€™s washing. Both Keynes and Milton Freidman pointed out that deficits can perfectly well accumulate as extra money rather than as debt.
Of course the stimulatory or inflationary effect of printing money may well be greater, dollar for dollar, than borrowing money. But that is not a problem: government just needs to print fewer dollars for given stimulatory effect than if it goes for the borrow option.
As for borrowing to fund capital investments, that does not make sense either (contrary to popular perception). Governments have an infinite source of funds with which to make capital investments: taxation. As Kersten Kellerman showed, funding investments from borrowing rather than tax makes little sense.
To summarise so far, there is no point in governments incurring debt, but they should certainly aim to issue enough money to induce the private sector to spend at a rate that brings full employment. (Incidentally, the idea that governments should not incur debt is not new: Milton Friedman (p.250) and Warren Mosler advocated this idea.)
And as to REDUCING the money supply, this will certainly be necessary sometimes. That is, the private sector will always have the odd fit irrational exuberance, and to counter this, governments will need to run surpluses and rein in money via extra tax. But this does not make the private sector any worse off: at least it wonâ€™t reduce total private sector spending. It simply keeps, or aims to keep aggregate demand at a level that avoids excess inflation. Indeed, and ironically, increasing taxes during a spell of irrational exuberance makes us BETTER OFF in that it should prevent excess inflation.
Disposing of debt.Â
To argue, as above, that governments should not incur debt, implies that governments should dispose of all or most of their existing debt and in short order. Against that, it can well be argued that dramatic and sudden changes are best avoided. Plus given that a number of governments are currently paying near zero or even negative rates of interest (after adjusting for inflation), debt reduction is arguably not urgent. But letâ€™s assume a government does want to reduce its debt relatively quickly. There are no big difficulties here.
The first step is to print money and buy back debt (or cease rolling it over). That alone would probably be too stimulatory or inflationary, so to counter the latter effect, a DEFLATIONARY effect is required. And the obvious way to bring this effect is to raise taxes and/or cut public spending. That would give a deflationary effect and produce more money for paying back debt.
As long as the inflationary effect of step one equals the deflationary effect of step two, the net effect is NEUTRAL. That is, there is no effect on GDP, numbers employed, etc, meanwhile debt is reduced at whatever speed is required.
Points that need more consideration.
The above argument, as it stands, is somewhat impressionistic and brief. But this is not supposed to be a full length PhD thesis.
One over-simplification in the above argument is that it ignores the effects of buying back debt held by foreigners. But the effects here are not necessarily large because the debt of country X held by residents of country Y are often more or less negated by debts of country Y held by residents of country X. Second, when debt held by foreigners is repaid, the latter do not necessarily invest their newly acquired cash elsewhere in the world. And if they donâ€™t, there is no foreign exchange effect, thus little effect on living standards in the country buying back debt. And third, if several countries coordinated the above debt reduction ploy, the foreign exchange effects would be further reduced.
Another vexed question relating to a large scale debt buy back is the question as to exactly which income or social groups (if any) are to be net beneficiaries, and which groups would lose out. The political problems here could be difficult. But the strictly economic problems are non-existent.
Reducing national debts is easy and does not, contrary to popular belief, involve significant amounts of â€œausterityâ€. Governments should not issue so much debt that they need to pay any significant amount of interest on their debt. Some governments are currently paying a zero or even negative rate of interest on their debt, after adjusting for inflation; thus there is no urgency for those countries to reduce their debt levels.
Friedman, Milton (1948)Â â€œA Monetary and Fiscal Framework for Economic Stabilityâ€, American Economic Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No.3., http://nb.vse.cz/~BARTONP/mae911/friedman.pdf
Kellermann, K. (2007). Debt financing of public investment: On a popular misinterpretation of â€œthe golden rule of public sector borrowingâ€. European Journal of Political Economy, 23 (4): 1088-1104.
Keynes, M. (1933), â€œAn Open Letter to President Rooseveltâ€, (See 2nd half of 5th paragraph), http://www.scribd.com/doc/33886843/Keynes-NYT-Dec-31-1933
Mosler, Warren (2010)Â Â â€œProposals for the Banking Systemâ€, Huffington Post (see 2nd last paragraph), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/warren-mosler/proposals-for-the-banking_b_432105.html