Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Some myths about government debt and how it is financed

That the Bank of England was temporarily eliminating the limit on the Ways and Means Facility caused a bit of a stir last Thursday (9th April). It in effect meant that the Bank of England could credit the government with as much money as it needed in the current crisis. That it should cause such a stir illustrates how pervasive many of the myths are around government debt. Here are three familiar examples.

  1. It doesn’t matter that we are in a developing economic crisis, like a recession or a health pandemic, we still need to worry about what is happening to government debt.

    This is false for any country that prints its own currency, like the UK. In a crisis you should worry about dealing with the crisis. Government debt is what allows the government to put all necessary fiscal resources into fighting the crisis. To worry about debt is like worrying that a fire engine putting out a fire is using too much water.

  2. OK, but we should worry about government debt the moment output stops falling (or in a pandemic, the moment any lock down is relaxed).

    Again false. This was the mistake that some large economies made after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). By worrying about debt they either slowed down, killed or reversed the recovery. Because governments can get the Bank of England to buy its debt (or continue to create money), there is no need to worry about debt until the economy has fully recovered from the crisis. This will be equally true in any recovery from the pandemic.

  3. When the government starts financing its deficit by printing money rather than issuing debt, rampant inflation is just around the corner.

Many thought this after the GFC, when central banks started buying government debt through their Quantitative Easing programme, because they bought the debt by creating money. Subsequent events have shown that those who thought inflation was inevitable were completely wrong, as many of us said at the time. The reason they were wrong is because interest rates are at their lower bound, and at the lower bound it does not matter too much how the government deficit is financed. The reason is intuitive: when rates are zero, you are indifferent between cash and short term debt. So why would issuing money rather than debt cause inflation when rates are zero? No reason at all.

Which brings us to the Ways and Means Facility. In practice this lifting of the limit is likely to be simple cash flow management, with the government still issuing debt at the end of the day. But the Bank of England will keep buying debt as part of their new QE scheme. Ironically it is possible that we may get some inflation this time round, but it will have nothing to do with QE, and everything to do with some sectors not hit by the pandemic taking advantage of high demand, or sectors still functioning but with some labour shortages passing on higher costs. The Bank of England is likely to ignore that inflation if it happens.

Why does the government prefer to issue debt rather than create money to cover its deficits? After all, doing so costs it money. Even when short term interest rates are zero, interest rates on long term government debt are higher, to compensate for having the money locked up or the capital risk in selling it earlier. To say that financing deficits by money creation creates inflation is too trite, because it appeals to a simple linkage between prices and central bank created money that we just noted fails to happen in recessions.

A better answer is the one Keynes gave. In a recession you can create a lot of money, because it is willingly held by nervous banks and investors. But outside a recession investors and banks will want to get rid of that money, which will force down rates of interest in the economy, encouraging too much borrowing and discouraging savings. That excess demand will create inflation. Central banks are only able to control the general level of interest rates in the economy by restricting the amount of money they create, which is why government deficits are largely financed by issuing debt.

If we shouldn’t worry about government debt during crises, or as crises are coming to an end, should we worry about it at all? It is a good question, which can only be answered by looking at why having high levels of government debt might be bad. So let’s look at three myths or misunderstandings about government debt.

  1. High debt risks financing crises.

    The general view at the moment is that there is a shortage of safe assets in the world, and the clearest evidence for that is low interest rates on government debt. As to short term market panics, we have seen that for a country that prints its own currency that is not a concern.

  2. It is a burden on future generations

The idea here is that any debt has to be serviced (the interest has to be paid), and this can only be done by raising taxes. But the level of debt interest depends on interest rates as well, so when these are low, debt can be higher with the same ‘burden’. The other thing to be said (which should be obvious but is often missed) is that failing to stimulate in a recession can cause lasting damage to future generations. As can not dealing with climate change.

The same point applies to the idea that higher taxes to service debt discourages labour supply. When interest rates are very low, the impact of debt service on taxes is also low. There is a common error often made here. People note that the amount of money required for debt service could build many new hospitals, so let’s reduce debt to get more hospitals. But getting debt down to zero would require severe fiscal consolidation for decades before that goal was achieved.

  1. It crowds out investment

This is an obvious mistake during an era of low real interest rates. Government debt crowds out private capital in OLG models by raising interest rates. So if interest rates are low enough to finance any decent investment, there can be no harmful crowding out.

To sum up, in an era of very low interest rates government debt can safely be much higher.The case for reducing the debt to GDP ratio from what it ends up being after the pandemic is over has to be made, and that case needs to take account of what causes real interest rates to be so low (secular stagnation) as well as the literature on safe asset shortages. In particular, as Olivier Blanchard has emphasised, if real interest rates on government debt are less than the growth rate, positive shocks to debt caused by recessions will gradually unwind of their own accord.

I have, however, to end with one final myth. This is

Deficits don’t matter as long as they don’t create excess inflation.

This is just not true when independent central banks (ICBs) control interest rates, because central banks will vary interest rates to control inflation. ICBs have been very successful at bringing inflation right down to low levels, which is why no government or opposition is going to abandon them anytime soon. In that situation, deficits that are too large or small will lead to changes in interest rates rather than inflation. (ICB’s are not so good at preventing recessions when inflation is low, which is why we need a state dependent assignment.)

Once recessions, caused by whatever means, are over then it makes sense to have targets for the government deficit (excluding investment) as a share of GDP. What that target should be will depend on a view of what the ideal debt to GDP ratio should be. (For more detail see here.) These targets are there not because high deficits will be the end of the world - far from it. Instead they are a disciplining device for governments. In the past it was thought they were needed to stop left wing governments spending too much, but in the UK and US the more likely problem is of right wing governments taxing too little.

Which brings us to why so many people think government debt and deficits are much more important than they actually are. In the past spurious concern about deficits has been seen by many to be an essential way of keeping a lid on government spending when a left wing government is in power, or even as a way to shrink the state when a right wing government is in power. It is ironic that in a era when there is an imperative to reduce climate change, the importance of deficit targets may be to stop right wing governments cutting taxes.  

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