Why we should expect low growth amid debt
By Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff
Published: January 27 2010 20:17 | Last updated: January 27 2010 20:17
As government debt levels explode in the aftermath of the financial crisis, there is growing uncertainty about how quickly to exit from today’s extraordinary fiscal stimulus. Our research on the long history of financial crises suggests that choices are not easy, no matter how much one wants to believe the present illusion of normalcy in markets. Unless this time is different – which so far has not been the case – yesterday’s financial crisis could easily morph into tomorrow’s government debt crisis.
In previous cycles, international banking crises have often led to a wave of sovereign defaults a few years later. The dynamic is hardly surprising, since public debt soars after a financial crisis, rising by an average of over 80 per cent within three years. Public debt burdens soar owing to bail-outs, fiscal stimulus and the collapse in tax revenues. Not every banking crisis ends in default, but whenever there is a huge international wave of crises as we have just seen, some governments choose this route.
While the exact mechanism is not certain, we presume that at some point, interest rate premia react to unchecked deficits, forcing governments to tighten fiscal policy. Higher taxes have an especially deleterious effect on growth. We suspect that growth also slows as governments turn to financial repression to place debts at sub-market interest rates.
Another big unknown is the future path of world real interest rates, which have been trending downwards for many years. The lower these rates are, the higher the debt levels countries can sustain without facing market discipline. One common mistake is for governments to “play the yield curve” – as debts soar, shifting to cheaper short-term debt to economise on interest costs. Unfortunately, a government with massive short-term debts to roll over is ill-positioned to adjust if rates spike or market confidence fades.
Given these risks of higher government debt, how quickly should governments exit from fiscal stimulus? This is not an easy task, especially given weak employment, which is again quite characteristic of the post-second world war financial crises suffered by the Nordic countries, Japan, Spain and many emerging markets. Given the likelihood of continued weak consumption growth in the US and Europe, rapid withdrawal of stimulus could easily tilt the economy back into recession. Yet, the sooner politicians reconcile themselves to accepting adjustment, the lower the risks of truly paralysing debt problems down the road. Although most governments still enjoy strong access to financial markets at very low interest rates, market discipline can come without warning. Countries that have not laid the groundwork for adjustment will regret it.
Markets are already adjusting to the financial regulation that must follow in the wake of unprecedented taxpayer largesse. Soon they will also wake up to the fiscal tsunami that is following. Governments who have convinced themselves that they have done things so much better than their predecessors had better wake up first. This time is not different.
Ms Reinhart is professor of economics, University of Maryland, and Mr Rogoff is professor of economics, Harvard University. They are co-authors of ‘This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly’ (Princeton)