Lately there has been a lot of media coverage about an Excel error by academics Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart – co-authors of ‘This Time is Different’ – 2009. A student from University of Massachusetts tried to replicate one their models regarding growth rates when a country has a public debt of greater than 90% of GDP. Rogoff and Carmen stated that with this level of public debt growth in a country falls to a mean of -0.1%. However using the same data the student found that a figure of 2.2% was applicable in this context.
However Rogoff and Reinhart have been cautious about saying that high debt causes slower growth rates but it does highlight the validity of analysis connecting debt and austerity to growth rates. Adam Posen in the FT stated that the claim of a clear tipping point for the ratio of Government Debt to GDP past which an economy starts to collapse doesn’t hold. Following the second world war the US, UK, Belgium, Italy and Japan had public debt greater than 90% of GDP but there was not much of an effect on their economies. In Italy and of late in Japan stagnation in economies led to slowly rising debt levels. In the UK and US in the 1950’s growth returned and debt levels declined. What this is suggesting is
Slow growth is at least as much the cause of high debt as high debt causes growth to slow.
But a certain amount public debt is necessary for future development of any economy especially when you think about the construction of infrastructure and government spending on education. Both of which contribute to future growth and in theoretical terms move the production possibility curve outwards. This in turn creates growth and subsequently income for a government.
USA – Mad Spending v EU – Nervous Austerity
With one side of the Atlantic – USA – involved in quantitive easing (printing money) and the other – EU – with severe austerity, maybe somewhere in between would be a logical way to go about things. But is moderation a choice for policy makers when they have already gone so far down the track of their respective plans?
What can be concluded is that too much debt has costs for growth but the degree of those costs is dependent on the reasons for debt accumulated and what path the economy is actually taking.