In discussions of Fiscal Policy and Fiscal vulnerability I have repeatedly (over the past 25 years) come across a clash between Economic theory and Market Fashions. The use of the word “Fashion” might suggest to some a harmless diversion a matter for amusement or entertainment, but a proper understanding of the economics is critical to dealing with the fiscal crises that threaten the World today. Let me illustrate this with four points that have a bearing on Fiscal sustainability.
The first basic principle of economics is the debt sustainability condition: g – r - Pd > 0 (g is the growth rate, r the real interest rate payable on sovereign debt, Pd is the primary deficit). A sovereign’s debt is sustainable if the growth rate exceeds the real interest rate paid on the debt by the extent of the Primary surplus. With few exceptions (e.g. William Buiter of Citi), the public discussion of debt sustainability has been carried out without reference to this basic essential data. Unfortunately this is not new: Over the past 25 years I have often seen even highly respected institutions such as the IMF ignore this simple number when it did not fit with their conclusions and recommendations (which therefore inevitably turned out to be wrong). Market fashion has shifted dramatically away from this measure since an empirical paper estimated” that 60% was the safe level of gross debt to GDP ratio for every country under the sun. Subsequent work concluded that this was the safe level for Developing countries but the safe level for Developed countries was higher (90%?). I am sure that there will many subsequent revisions and refinements to these estimates. I call this a fashion not because these estimates are not useful, but because it has led to herd behavior in which analysts do not even think it worthwhile to produce and present the basic numbers for the sustainability conditions. It would seem to me that we can easily produce this data, not only for the US, Japan and European countries currently under pressure but also other economies with weak fiscal situations and poorer economic data. This will allow us to define the relative fiscal sustainability of different countries more accurately and identify the source of the problem, the better to deal with it.
Economic theory tells us that, the debt that is relevant to the fiscal sustainability issue is the net debt (debt net of assets) not gross debt. This is such a simple and well understood (by private individuals) principle of economics that it is almost embarrassing to raise it in a professional context. Yet public discourse over the last two years barely ever mentions the asset side of the balance sheet or presents the comparative net debt position of countries under stress. When financial markets sense a crisis, even a minor temporary one, only the short term matters, as each market participant tries to be the first to unload its holding of the concerned sovereign debt or loans. Only the gross debt, coming due and needing refinancing seems to matter to the markets. If this is true, why call it a ‘market fashion’? Because it is the obligation and duty of responsible analysts, including the international financial institutions, to focus not just on the short term but also on the medium and long term – the original definition of “sustainability”. The short term can be dealt with by liquidity support, whether from the Country’s Central Bank or the IMF, it is or should be the medium term that determines sustainability.
The theorists who emphasize Net debt are quite aware of the problem of maturity mismatch between sovereign debt and sovereign assets (e.g. loans or bond debt and public companies or infrastructure assets) and about the difference in risk associated with the different type of assets (e.g. physical assets versus future tax obligations). This cannot distract from the basic economic fact that fiscal solvency depends on the net debt position – a country or individual cannot be insolvent if its assets exceed its debt. Further, the fact that a country’s fiscal situation (as against an individual’s) can be sustainable with debt larger than its assets matters even in the short term, because it is possible to loan or sell some assets (perhaps at a discount) to meet short term debt obligations! The safety threshold of 60% or 90% gross Debt-GDP ratio will surely be refined if we put in the effort to determine net debt. To say that we do not have a perfect measure of sovereign assets or net debt is an evasion; imperfect measures (for instance physical assets valued at depreciated book value) are better than no measures, if we are clear and transparent about the limitations.
The theory also makes a distinction between sovereign debt financed externally and that financed domestically, though mostly in a very elementary manner of differential interest rates. Some of us who have had to advise on fiscal control and fiscal debt issues and to face the consequences of bad or incomplete advice, have long asserted that external financing of sovereign debt is not worth the risk. The advantage of lower nominal interest is very tempting economically and politically: However the exchange risk is likely to be neglected or ignored and the danger of sudden stops and reversals is very real. The country can suddenly find itself at huge risk from shocks to global financial markets and overreaction to temporary problems in the domestic economy and polity. In addition the valuation of assets that go into the determination of net debt, is likely to be asymmetric – foreign lenders to the sovereign are likely to value it much less than domestic debt holders relative to debt. Besides the home bias and exchange risk, other factors include differential costs of using the legal system.
Recent, preliminary empirical analysis also suggests that the net external debt of a country has a positive effect on the volatility of capital flows (i.e. higher net debt more capital flow volatility). In other words the lower the cumulative gap between domestic investment and domestic saving (Id-Sd) the more stable capital flows are likely to be. This implies that higher domestic private and household savings are likely to lead to lower capital volatility lower risk to foreign borrowing (private and government) and a higher threshold limit for safe Debt-GDP ratios. The hypothesis is that (other things being equal), higher domestic private saving rates allow a country to sustain higher Sovereign Debt-GDP levels. If this is true it would certainly be useful to know the relative household and private saving rates of different countries, along with the other data mentioned above. We would then be in a better position to judge relative fiscal sustainability and to identify the key problems and focus on the policies that can make a difference.