In 2015 New Zealand’s government debt as a % of GDP was amongst the lowest amongst the OECD countries coming in at 35.6% – NZ$86.1bn. This gives the government the ability to borrow billions of dollars to stimulate growth in the economy and fund necessary infrastructure projects. This is important when a recession phase is threatening the economy. In 2015 the median level of debt to GDP was the Netherlands with 77.5% and Australia was 67.7%. The UK and the USA had debt to GDP of 112.6% and 125.9%. The standout countries are Japan with debt of 234% of GDP and Greece at 182%. High amounts of debts are only become a concern when the debt is mainly funded from overseas and issues in non-local currency and the country is unable to alter its exchange rates. For Japan a lot of the debt has been issued internally and been bought by the Bank of Japan (central bank) but this is not the case for Greece as they have had significant help from other countries.
Does aggressive or cautious fiscal stimulus lead to higher debt-to-GDP ratio?
With low interest rates globally and liquidity trap conditions a more expansionary fiscal policy has become more prevalent for most governments. However the level of severity of fiscal policy – aggressive fiscal stimulus v cautious fiscal stimulus – is important with regard to a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio as recent experience shows. A paper by Alan Auerbach and Purity Gorodnichenko of University of California Berkeley found that short bursts of expansionary fiscal stimulus doesn’t necessarily lead to higher debt-to-GDP ratios or to higher interest rates. They noted that in some instances markets revised down their worries about creditworthiness in response to large scale stimulus.
Other research by Brad De-Long University of California Berkeley and Larry Summers Harvard University seems to support this view. Their research suggests that long periods of cautious growth eat away at an economy’s productive potential as investments don’t get finished and healthy workers drop out of the labor force.
In future the level of stimulus and its time periods should be automatic and proportionate to the severity of the downturn. Examples could include:
- Labour tax rates could be linked to unemployment figures so that pay packets jump the moment conditions deteriorate.
- Funding to local governments could be similarly conditioned, to limit painful cutbacks by municipalities.
- To prevent a scramble for worthwhile, shovel-ready infrastructure projects, governments could make sure to have a ready queue, so spending could easily scale up in a downturn.
- The Economist – The Borrowers – 9th September 2017
- BERL: New Zealand among lowest government debts in OECD – 26th September 2017