Deficits can matter, sometimes

The writer is a financial journalist and author of ‘More: The 10,000-Year Rise of the World Economy’

Deficits don’t matter. This quote comes not from some spendthrift European socialist but reputedly from the distinctly conservative Dick Cheney, vice-president of the US from 2001 to 2009.

According to an account by former Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, in 2002 Cheney cited the Reagan administration as evidence for his thesis; the national debt tripled on the Republican’s watch in the 1980s but the US economy boomed and bond yields fell sharply.

In the 20 years since Cheney’s remark, US federal debt has roughly doubled as a proportion of GDP. But 10-year Treasury bond yields are no higher than they were two decades ago; indeed they have spent much of the intervening period at much lower levels, even as debt has soared. The continuing brouhaha over the US debt ceiling has nothing to do with the willingness of markets to buy American debt any everything to do with the willingness of politicians to honour their government’s commitments.

However, Cheney’s sentiments have not always been borne out elsewhere. Over the past nine months the British government has discovered the problems that can occur when funding costs suddenly increase. And that has rekindled the debate over the ability of governments to run prolonged deficits.

In one camp are the spiritual descendants of Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who sought to balance budgets, arguing that “good Conservatives always pay their bills”. Modern budget hawks often say that governments should not pass on the burden of debt repayment to the next generation. Many also argue that budget deficits are caused by excessive government spending and that reducing this spending is not only prudent but will fuel economic growth. In the other camp are the majority of economists, who argue that unlike individuals, governments are in effect immortal and can rely on inflation, or future generations, to pay down their debts.

They point out that government debt, as a proportion of gross domestic product, was very high (in both the US and the UK) in the aftermath of the second world war. That debt proved no barrier to rapid economic growth. Furthermore, ageing populations in the developed world mean there has been a “savings glut” as citizens put aside money for their retirements, making it easy to fund deficits.

But the freedom of governments to issue debt comes with a couple of caveats. First, a country must be able to issue debt in its own currency. Many a developing country has discovered the dangers of issuing debt in dollars. If that country is forced to devalue its currency, then the cost of servicing the dollar debt soars. Secondly, countries need a central bank that is willing to support its government by buying its debt. The quantitative easing programmes of such buying has undoubtedly made it easier for governments to run deficits.

In the eurozone crisis of 2010-12, deficits did matter for countries like Greece and Italy. Their bond yields soared as investors feared that the indebted countries might be forced to leave the eurozone. This would have either forced governments to default, or attempt to re-denominate the debt into their local currency. Greece turned to neighbours for help but found that other countries were unwilling to provide required support that unless Athens reined in its budget deficits.

To many Eurosceptics, that proved the folly of joining the single currency. Britain was free of such constraints since it issued debt in its own currency and had a central bank that would undertake QE. Given those freedoms, the financial crisis of last autumn, which followed the mini-Budget proposed by the shortlived Liz Truss administration, was even more of a shock.

While Truss tried to echo Thatcher’s imagery, she rejected the budgetary prudence of the Treasury as “abacus economics”. She argued that slashing taxes would lead to faster economic growth so that the deficit would disappear of its own accord as government revenues rose. 

However, the markets did not swallow the argument. The mini-Budget was followed by a spectacular sell-off in sterling and UK government bonds. The latter may have stemmed from the leveraged bets made by British pension funds on bonds. Still, the Truss team’s economic analysis failed to account for this possibility.

Investor confidence in British economic policy had already been dented by the Brexit vote and by the rapid turnover of prime ministers and chancellors. The problem has not gone away. Data released this week showed that Britain was still struggling to contain inflation and gilt yields jumped back towards the levels reached after the mini-Budget.

So Cheney’s aphorism needs amending. Deficits don’t matter if the government borrows in its own currency, and also has a friendly central bank, a steady inflation rate and the confidence of the financial markets. It also requires a continuation of the global savings glut. Those conditions mean there is plenty of scope for future governments to get into trouble.

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