Tag Archives: Government debt

Qou Vadis, QE?

Ever since the first rounds of quantitative easing (QE) by the US Federal Reserve, I’ve raised questions about how sound and sustainable this form of monetary policy is? How big is the risk that the greatest economic experiment in modern history may eventually fail? More than three years later, I’m still not sure. The only thing I’m sure of, is that the need for extreme measures is greater than ever.

“It doesn’t matter whether new investment is financed by more government borrowing, quantitative easing or redistribution. What matters is growth.”

George Irvin

(Photo by freakingnews.com)

While Mr. Ben Bernanke in the USA is trying to figure out new and more creative ways to flow the financial system with money in order to kick-start the nation’s economy, European politicians are obsessing over new and creative austerity measures in order to save money and regain the union’s financial balance. But nothing seems to work. 

In 2008 I called for the launch of a so-called “Keynesian war” – but with a twist:

Instead of increasing public spending the traditional way, by investing in infrastructure like transport and housing or by upgrading public institutions like the military, I suggested to aim the financial “guns” at research and education, closing  the gap between the rich and the poor, and developing clean energy.

The “Keynesian war” was launched, all  right. But the ammunition was poured into the banks and other financial institutions who barely manged to save their own asses, in addition to dump the problems on their respective  national governments.

The financial crisis is currently well beyond the stage I regarded as a “worst-case-scenario” only two years ago.

So, where do we go from here?

One thing ought to be clear: It’s no longer a question of method – the only thing that matters is the result.

Honorary professor George Irvin at University of London makes a pretty good summary in his latest blog post at the EUobserver.com.

The Debt Trap 

“Europe is obsessed with the growing stock of public sector debt; fiscal austerity has become the watchword of our time. Little does it seem to matter that fiscal austerity means reducing aggregate demand, thus leading to economic stagnation and recession throughout the EU as all the main forecasts are now suggesting,” Professor Irvin writes.

Even the credit rating agencies are worried, as S&P’s downgrading of France and eight other countries shows. Whether it’s Angela Merkel or David Cameron speaking, public debt is denounced as deplorable, and all are told to get used to hard times.

As Larry Elliot puts it:

“The notion that economic pain is the only route to pleasure was once the preserve of the British public school-educated elite, now it’s European economic policy”.

In Britain, immediately after the general election, the Tory-led coalition decreed that in light of the large government current deficit, harsh cuts were necessary to win the confidence of the financial markets.

But although the current deficit was high, the stock of debt (typically measured by the debt/GDP ratio) was relatively low and of long maturity, the real interest rate on debt was zero (and at times negative) and, crucially,

Britain had its own Central Bank and could devalue. As Harriet Harman argued in June 2010, Osborne’s cuts were ideologically motivated. The aim was to shrink the public sector, and the LibDems—fearing a new general election—chose to go along with the policy.

In the euro zone (EZ), where a balance of payments crisis at the periphery has turned into a sovereign debt crisis, the German public has been sold the idea that if only all EZ countries could be like Germany and adhere to strict fiscal discipline, all would be well.

The ultra-orthodox Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) has now been repackaged under the heading of ‘economic governance’ under which Germany and its allies will vet members’ fiscal policies and impose punitive fines on those failing to observe the deflationary budget rules to be adopted.

Never mind the fact that indebtedness in countries like Spain and Ireland was mainly private, or that the draconian fiscal measures imposed on Greece have, far from reducing public indebtedness, increased it.

Is debt always a bad thing?

In the private sector, obviously not since corporations regularly borrow money for expenditure they don’t want to meet out of retained earnings, while most households aim to hold long-term mortgages.

Public debt instruments like gilts in the UK or bunds in Germany are much sought after by the private sector, mainly because such instruments are thought to act as an excellent hedge against risk.

Remember, too, that when a pension fund buys a government bond, it is held as an asset which produces a future cash stream which benefits the private sector.

So ‘public debt’ is not a burden passed on from one generation to the next.

The stock of public debt is only a problem when its servicing (ie, payment of interest) is unaffordable; ie, in times of recession when growth is zero or negative and/or interest rates demanded by the financial market are soaring.

The question is when is debt sustainable?

Sustainability means keeping the ratio of debt to GDP stable in the longer term.

If GDP at the start of the year is €1,000bn and the government’s total stock of debt is €600bn, then the debt ratio is 60%; the fiscal deficit is the extra borrowing that the government makes in a year – so it adds to the stock of debt.

But although the stock of debt may be rising, as long as GDP is rising proportionately, the debt/GDP ratio can be kept constant or may even be falling.

Consider the following example. Suppose the real rate of interest on debt is 2% (say 5% nominal but with inflation at 3%, so 5 – 3 = 2). That means government must pay €12bn per annum of interest in real terms. But as long as real GDP, too, is rising—say at 2% per year—there’s no problem since real GDP at the year’s end will be €1020bn.

Even if the government were to pay none of the interest, the end-of-year debt/GDP ratio would be 612/1020 or 60%; ie, the debt ratio remains unchanged.

By contrast, if real GDP growth is zero, the ratio would be 612/1000 = 61.2; ie, the debt ratio rises only slightly. 

The rule is that as long as the real economy is growing by at least as much as the real rate of interest on debt, the debt/GDP ratio doesn’t rise.

Moreover, this holds true irrespective of whether the debt ratio is 60% or 600%.

But there’s a catch.

In a modern economy, the public sector accounts for about half the economy.

If a country panics about its debt ratio and cuts back sharply on public sector spending, this reduces aggregate demand and may lead to stagnation or even recession.

When a country stops growing, financial markets decide that its debt ratio may rise and so become more cautious about lending and demand a higher bond yield (ie, interest rate).

The gloomy prophecy of growing public indebtedness becomes self-fulfilling. This is exactly the sort of “debt trap” which faces much of the EU and other rich countries. The way out cannot be greater austerity.

What works for a single household or firm doesn’t work for the economy as a whole. A household can tighten its belt by spending less, saving more, and thus ‘balancing the books’, but an economy cannot.

If everybody saves more, national income falls.

Of course, Germany and some Nordic countries can balance the government books because an export surplus offsets domestic private saving. But the Club-Med countries cannot match them.

When no EZ country can devalue, to ask each EZ country to balance the books by running an export surplus is empirically and logically impossible.

Even if all could devalue, what would follow is 1930’s-style competitive devaluation.

The way out of the ‘debt trap’ is the same as the way out of recession: if the private sector won’t invest, the public sector must become investor of the last resort.

It doesn’t matter whether new investment is financed by more government borrowing, quantitative easing or redistribution (some combination of the three would be optimal).

What matters is growth.

By George Irvin

George Irvin is a retired professor of economics and for many years was at ISS in The Hague. He is now honorary Professorial Research Fellow in Development Studies at the University of London, SOAS.

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Italy And Spain Damage Investor Sentiment

Appetite for risk dissolved today in the face of yet more sovereign debt concerns and worrying economic signals. It was the two countries regarded as the safest of the “PIIGS” – Italy and Spain – that damaged sentiment, according to Markit Credit Research.

“With a general election in Portugal next month and local elections in Italy, political instability could yet create more spread volatility over the course of the year.”

Gavan Nolan


With Europe in a total financial chaos, without someone to lead the economic rescue operations, it’s no wonder investors are a bit sceptical. Another round of bad news sort of nailed the day in credits, Monday.

Late on Friday S&P placed Italy’s “A+” rating on negative outlook, citing the “heightened downside risks” in the government’s debt reduction programme.

Specifically, the agency highlighted the country’s weak growth prospects and the lack of political commitment to reducing the public debt burden (about 120% of GDP).

S&P did acknowledge that Italy’s budget deficit was smaller than the other peripheral euro zone countries, and that its banks have better quality balance sheets.

“These two factors help explain the relative stability in Italy’s spreads compared to the other peripherals,” credit analyst Gavan Nolan at Markit Credit Research writes in his Intraday Alert.

Adding: “Spain is not fortunate enough to be able to claim the same, and its economic problems are causing problems for the government.”

Over the weekend, the incumbent Socialist Party suffered a major defeat in regional and local elections, including the loss of strongholds such as Barcelona and Castilla La Mancha.

While a resounding defeat was expected, the result showed just how difficult it will be to maintain social unity in a time of austerity, Nolan points out.

There is talk of bringing forward the general election to this year, though this has been dismissed by prime minister Zapatero.

“With a general election in Portugal next month and local elections in Italy, political instability could yet create more spread volatility over the course of the year.”


The events in Italy and Spain temporarily took attention away from Greece.

“But the fate of the Hellenic Republic is central to how the debt crisis will unfold, and the uncertainty surrounding the country is set to shape sentiment until the denouement, whenever that may be,” Gavan Nolan writes.

The government met today to approve a fifth austerity plan, and there are reports that the EU and IMF will require them to quicken the pace of state assets sales in order to receive bailout funds.

“The country’s capacity to withstand yet more austerity is questionable and is only likely to heighten speculation around debt restructuring,” the Markit analyst states.

Away from the travails of the periphery, markets were also troubled by disappointing economic leading indicators.

The preliminary estimate of the Markit/HSBC China Manufacturing PMI showed that the world’s second-biggest economy is continuing to cool.

“The index dropped to 51.1 in May, a 10-month low, and added to fears that monetary tightening could lead to sharp slowdown,” Nolan comments.

Germany, another of the world’s growth engines, also saw its rate of expansion slow.

The Markit Flash Composite PMI came in at 56.4, still indicating growth but the lowest reading since October 2010.

“Signals that China and Germany are running out of steam will put even more emphasis on the US and the ISM number at the beginning of next month,” Gavan Nolan concludes.

Click to enlarge

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Call For Independent Audit of Greek Debt – Get Rate Cut Instead

A group of some 200 academics, economists, MEPs and other notables have issued a call for an audit of Greek debt, a demand that may be raised in the Greek parliament in the coming days and which has also been quickly embraced by Irish trade unions and development NGOs regarding Dublin’s public borrowing. Last night Greece was granted a 1% rate cut on its EUR 110 billion loan – Ireland was not.

“Such an audit would throw up some interesting questions regarding the legality – banks may have been lending in contravention of public debt rules of European debts.”

Nick Dearden


The group, which includes former UN assistant secretary general Denis Halliday, and ten left-wing and Green MEPs, on Thursday (3 March) argued for the creation of a debt audit commission similar to that established in 2008 by the Ecuadorean government that ultimately led to a repudiation of ‘illegitimate’ debt. The concept has since been embraced by Irish campaign groups and organisers hope similar pressure to launch forensic investigations will also be mounted in Spain and Portugal and other heavily indebted European states.


The idea comes from European debt and development NGOs, including Jubilee Debt Campaign, a UK-based Christian charity, and Eurodad, the European Network on Debt and Development, who have long campaigned for Western countries to cancel the debt of developing countries and are now turning their attention to the debt of peripheral euro zone states.

On Friday, Irish development organisation Afri, author Fintan O’Toole, a series of Irish economists and leading trade unionists backed the creation of a similar commission in their country.

An audit commission, composed of public auditors, economists, lawyers and other specialists, as well as representatives of civil society and organised labour, would look into why public debt was incurred, the terms under which it was contracted, what the borrowed money was spent on and seek to establish who was responsible for problematic debt agreements.

“Such an audit would throw up some interesting questions regarding the legality – banks may have been lending in contravention of public debt rules of European debts,” Jubilee Debt Campaign director Nick Dearden says.

The group of signatories, which also include British director Ken Loach, American linguist Noam Chomsky, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and Indian economist CP Chandrasekhar, say that the commission should have full access to public debt agreements and documentation for the last four decades, including bond issues, bilateral, multilateral, and other forms of debt and state liabilities.

The commission would also have the power to summon public officials to give evidence and examine Greek and foreign bank accounts.

Should proof emerge of portions of Greek borrowing incurred for wasteful or corrupt purposes, such findings could then be used as the basis for a repudiation, or default, of “odious debt”.

Debts defined as illegitimate, odious or illegal could then be declared null and void and Greece could refuse to repay.

Odious debt a legal theory that posits that the national debt incurred by a despotic regime for purposes that do not serve the best interests of the nation do not have to be paid back.

The concept then began to be used in the late 1990s by development charities to argue that whether a government had been despotic or not, the debt burden forced on third world nations, particularly in Africa, was trapping countries in underdevelopment.

Core euro zone banks and Berlin and Paris would likely be against such a move, as, according to the latest government budget,

Greek public debt is expected to rise from €299 billion, or 127 percent of GDP, in 2009 to €362 billion, or 159 percent of GDP, in 2011. Any substantial repudiation of this debt would punch massive holes in the balance sheets of the banks in the core of the euro zone that performed much of the lending, mainly German and French institutions.

Similar effects would be felt by UK banks in the case of Irish lending.

Such a development could also precipitate a fresh revival of market contagion were it believed that international lenders could be forced to incur significant losses.

Initially promoted by leftist groups in Greece, the concept is now steadily gaining a wider hearing as a growing number of voices in the country begin to make the argument that the cost of paying back “illegitimate” debt should not be borne by the Greek people. Instead, they say, the burden should be shared by “predatory lenders”.

I hereby introduce the term : “Too Stressed To Test” as a substitute for “Too Big To Fail”

 

Greece Gets Rate Cut

What's taxes got to do with it?

In spite of the growing scepticism towards the Greek debt, the King of the PIIGS, was granted a 1% rate cut last night by the EU commission and an extension of the payment period from the current three and a half years to seven and a half.

Ireland was offered a similar reduction, but the country’s new prime minister says he could not accept the terms demanded.

“It was impossible to reach a deal for Ireland this evening,” Taoiseach Enda Kenny told reporters after an acrimonious seven-hour meeting of euro zone premiers and presidents in Brussels on Friday, according to the EUobserver.com.

“I wasn’t prepared to contemplate a common euro zone tax base,” he continued, adding that Ireland still intends to be “constructive” about discussions about EU tax policy as contained in a ‘euro pact’ agreed by leaders early Saturday morning, but that was as far as Dublin was willing to go.

He said that Ireland had been asked “to make a reference to our corporate tax rate.”

Referring to an angry confrontation between Kenny and French President Nicolas Sarkozy over corporate taxes, he said: “France has had very strong views on corporate tax rates for quite some time, but then so do I.”

Saying that Ireland unlike Greece had not asked for a loan extension,  insisting: “This country wants to pay its way. We seek no evasion of our responsibilities.”

“It will be difficult” to continue the discussions, he adds, “but I am convinced we can find a way.”

Sarkozy for his part noted that the issue is “very sensitive for our Irish friends.”

“There is a discussion that is progressing in one way or another … but there is no certainty,” he continues, asking for “at least a gesture.”

In return for Greece’s concessions, Athens has committed to a detailed fire-sale privatisation programme worth some €50 billion.

A nice Greek island, anyone?

(Real cheep, too!)

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