Thursday, February 25, 2010

The future of public debt: prospects and implications

by Stephen G Cecchetti, M S Mohanty and Fabrizio Zampolli

This paper was prepared for the Reserve Bank of India's International Research Conference "Challenges to Central Banking in the context of Financial Crisis", Mumbai, India, 12-13 February 2010.


The financial crisis that erupted in mid-2008 led to an explosion of public debt in many advanced economies. Governments were forced to recapitalise banks, take over a large part of the debts of failing financial institutions, and introduce large stimulus programmes to revive demand. According to the OECD, total industrialised country public sector debt is now expected to exceed 100% of GDP in 2010 - something that has never happened before in peacetime. As bad as these fiscal problems may appear, relying solely on these official figures is almost certainly very misleading. Rapidly ageing populations present a number of countries with the prospect of enormous future costs that are not wholly recognised in current budget projections. The size of these future obligations is anybody's guess. As far as we know, there is no definite and comprehensive account of the unfunded, contingent liabilities that governments currently have accumulated.

Should we be concerned about high and sharply rising public debts? Several advanced economies have experienced higher levels of public debt than we see today. In the aftermath of World War II, for example, government debts in excess of 100% of GDP were common. And none of these led to default. In more recent times, Japan has been living with a public debt ratio of over 150% without any adverse effect on its cost. So it is possible that investors will continue to put strong faith in industrial countries' ability to repay, and that worries about excessive public debts are exaggerated. Indeed, with only a few exceptions, during the crisis, nominal government bond yields have fallen and remained low. So far, at least, investors have continued to view government bonds as relatively safe.

But bond traders are notoriously short-sighted, assuming they can get out before the storm hits: their time horizons are days or weeks, not years or decades. We take a longer and less benign view of current developments, arguing that the aftermath of the financial crisis is poised to bring a simmering fiscal problem in industrial economies to boiling point. In the face of rapidly ageing populations, for many countries the path of pre-crisis future revenues was insufficient to finance promised expenditure.

The politics of public debt vary by country. In some, seared by unpleasant experience, there is a culture of frugality. In others, however, profligate official spending is commonplace. In recent years, consolidation has been successful on a number of occasions. But fiscal restraint tends to deliver stable debt; rarely does it produce substantial reductions. And, most critically, swings from deficits to surpluses have tended to come along with either falling nominal interest rates, rising real growth, or both. Today, interest rates are exceptionally low and the growth outlook for advanced economies is modest at best. This leads us to conclude that the question is when markets will start putting pressure on governments, not if. When, in the absence of fiscal actions, will investors start demanding a much higher compensation for the risk of holding the increasingly large amounts of public debt that authorities are going to issue to finance their extravagant ways? In some countries, unstable debt dynamics, in which higher debt levels lead to higher interest rates, which then lead to even higher debt levels, are already clearly on the horizon.

It follows that the fiscal problems currently faced by industrial countries need to be tackled relatively soon and resolutely. Failure to do so will complicate the task of central banks in controlling inflation in the immediate future and might ultimately threaten the credibility of present monetary policy arrangements.

While fiscal problems need to be tackled soon, how to do that without seriously jeopardising the incipient economic recovery is the current key challenge for fiscal authorities. We believe an important part of any fiscal consolidation programmes are measures to reduce future liabilities such as an increase in the retirement age. Announcements of changes in future programmes would allow authorities to wait until the recovery from the crisis is assured before reducing discretionary spending and improving the short-term fiscal position.

The remainder of this paper is organised into four sections. In section 2 we present an examination of the recent build-up of public debt. Following the facts, we turn to a forward-looking examination of the public debt trajectories in industrial countries. In section 4 we discuss the challenges these possible future debt levels pose to both fiscal and monetary authorities. The last section concludes.

Full publication (PDF 21 pages, 187 kb)


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