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Debt, Growth, and the Austerity Debate

April 30, 2013

Two weeks ago I wrote about the current debate over the 2010 paper by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart (hereinafter referred to as RR) on the correlation between debt and GDP growth. I said that the most important part of their work, which is the construction of an enormous database on debt and financial crises over the last few hundred years, was to be found in their book This Time Is Different and elsewhere. And their fundamental conclusion: debt is not a problem until it becomes one. And then it reaches a critical mass and you have what they called the Bang! moment.

They did make an unfortunate error in a few cells of a massive Excel spreadsheet, which subsequent analysis has shown to not be a huge deal, though some have made it out to be. And the more I read of the issue, the more I believe that the bulk of the negative response has political overtones. There are those who wish to find reasons to abandon any move toward balanced budgets and reasonable fiscal policies. They see austerity as a punishment, some type of masochistic conservative Calvinist plot foisted on poor unsuspecting citizens who should not be held responsible for the governments they elect.

As I wrote two weeks ago, austerity is a consequence, not a punishment. 

Last Thursday RR published an op-ed in the New York Times. Some were uncharitably dismissive of it, but if you take a careful look at the detailed online version, which is this week’s Outside the Box, I think you'll find their counterarguments thorough and reasonable.

An essay on Bloomberg notes:

The biggest howler is the least consequential. By highlighting the wrong cells in an Excel spreadsheet, Reinhart and Rogoff actually took an average over 15 countries, rather than the full sample of 20. Embarrassing? Yes. Important? No. Of the five missing countries, only one – Belgium – had ever experienced very high debt. Adding it barely changed the findings because Belgium’s economic growth during its high-debt episode was roughly similar to that in other highly indebted nations.
[emphasis mine]

While the media loves to focus on the simple (and regrettable) coding error (which RR acknowledge), the main body of their analysis still points strongly in the same direction, and that direction has been noted by other, independent researchers:

Researchers at the Bank of International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund have weighed in with their own independent work. The World Economic Outlook published last October by the International Monetary Fund devoted an entire chapter to debt and growth. The most recent update to that outlook, released in April, states: "Much of the empirical work on debt overhangs seeks to identify the 'overhang threshold' beyond which the correlation between debt and growth becomes negative. The results are broadly similar: above a threshold of about 95 percent of G.D.P., a 10 percent increase in the ratio of debt to G.D.P. is identified with a decline in annual growth of about 0.15 to 0.20 percent per year.” (NYT)

In fact, when you examine the paper and underlying research of the University of Massachusetts trio who discovered and wrote about the error, you find that there is not all that much difference in outcomes if you use their assumptions. The best analysis I have read is in this piece by F. F. Wiley (even if he misspells my name in his links <g>). For those wanting even more detail on this issue, I suggest you read the Wiley piece after you read RR’s response below.

Economics, at least in its predictive and prescriptive forms, is not a physical science, notwithstanding the physics envy of many economists. To try and suggest that major policy differences should be formed on the basis of numbers to the right of the decimal point is folly. It is enough at times to get the direction right. North rather than south. With regard to the present debate, it is clear that a point can be reached at which too much debt is a problem. Is there a bright, unchanging line? This far and no farther? There is not.

Water transmutes from solid to liquid to gas. In physics and mathematics, limits, and indeed singularities, occur; and we can measure and even predict them. With debt-to-GDP ratios, all we know for now is that the Bang!  moment exists, but the precise point for any one given country is not something we can calculate. But wherever that line happens to fall, once it is crossed, Bang! Everything changes. And dear gods, that is a fate to be avoided.

This is far more than an academic tempest in a teapot. Understanding the relationship between debt and systemic financial problems is critical to how you construct your long-term portfolio positions. If there is not a relationship between debt and growth, then quantitative easing will have an entirely different effect on markets than if there is. It is really that simple. Can we point to exact figures and immutable relationships? Of course not. Nothing in life is that simple, and RR don’t even attempt to do so, although some of their critics (and to be fair, some of their supporters) try to see bright red lines around the 90% debt-to-GDP number.

I write this note from La Jolla, looking over the Pacific Ocean. I will have dinner with Jon Sundt and the partners at Altegris at George’s later this evening and then move on to Carlsbad, where I will meet tomorrow with my partners and team at Mauldin Economics. The bulk of the team will be in this week for a two-day planning fest before we celebrate our 10th annual Strategic Investment Conference, starting Wednesday evening. I also have writing and reading and a brand-new speech to attend to. And I want to be there for all the speaking sessions. There will also be lots of late-night conversations with great friends on a very wide range of topics, from QE to biotech to geopolitics and all sorts of politically incorrect notions. Can it get any better?

It is about time to get to that next meeting. I hope your week is going well.

Your about as excited as I can get when I think about this week analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

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Debt, Growth, and the Austerity Debate

The New York Times, April 25, 2013

In May 2010, we published an academic paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt.” Its main finding, drawing on data from 44 countries over 200 years, was that in both rich and developing countries, high levels of government debt – specifically, gross public debt equaling 90 percent or more of the nation’s annual economic output – was associated with notably lower rates of growth.

Given debates occurring across the industrialized world, from Washington to London to Brussels to Tokyo, about the best way to recover from the Great Recession, that paper, along with other research we have published, has frequently been cited – and, often, exaggerated or misrepresented – by politicians, commentators and activists across the political spectrum.

Last week, three economists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, released a paper criticizing our findings. They correctly identified a spreadsheet coding error that led us to miscalculate the growth rates of highly indebted countries since World War II. But they also accused us of “serious errors” stemming from “selective exclusion” of relevant data and “unconventional weighting” of statistics – charges that we vehemently dispute. (In an online-only appendix accompanying this essay, we explain the methodological and technical issues that are in dispute.)

Our research, and even our credentials and integrity, have been furiously attacked in newspapers and on television. Each of us has received hate-filled, even threatening, e-mail messages, some of them blaming us for layoffs of public employees, cutbacks in government services and tax increases. As career academic economists (our only senior public service has been in the research department at the International Monetary Fund) we find these attacks a sad commentary on the politicization of social science research. But our feelings are not what’s important here.

The authors of the paper released last week – Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin – say our “findings have served as an intellectual bulwark in support of austerity politics” and urge policy makers to “reassess the austerity agenda itself in both Europe and the United States.”

A sober reassessment of austerity is the responsible course for policy makers, but not for the reasons these authors suggest. Their conclusions are less dramatic than they would have you believe. Our 2010 paper found that, over the long term, growth is about 1 percentage point lower when debt is 90 percent or more of gross domestic product. The University of Massachusetts researchers do not overturn this fundamental finding, which several researchers have elaborated upon.

The academic literature on debt and growth has for some time been focused on identifying causality. Does high debt merely reflect weaker tax revenues and slower growth? Or does high debt undermine growth?

Our view has always been that causality runs in both directions, and that there is no rule that applies across all times and places. In a paper published last year with Vincent R. Reinhart, we looked at virtually all episodes of sustained high debt in the advanced economies since 1800. Nowhere did we assert that 90 percent was a magic threshold that transforms outcomes, as conservative politicians have suggested.

We did find that episodes of high debt (90 percent or more) were rare, long and costly. There were just 26 cases where the ratio of debt to G.D.P. exceeded 90 percent for five years or more; the average high-debt spell was 23 years. In 23 of the 26 cases, average growth was slower during the high-debt period than in periods of lower debt levels. Indeed, economies grew at an average annual rate of roughly 3.5 percent, when the ratio was under 90 percent, but at only a 2.3 percent rate, on average, at higher relative debt levels.

(In 2012, the ratio of debt to gross domestic product was 106 percent in the United States, 82 percent in Germany and 90 percent in Britain – in Japan, the figure is 238 percent, but Japan is somewhat exceptional because its debt is held almost entirely by domestic residents and it is a creditor to the rest of the world.)

The fact that high-debt episodes last so long suggests that they are not, as some liberal economists contend, simply a matter of downturns in the business cycle.

In “This Time Is Different,” our 2009 history of financial crises over eight centuries, we found that when sovereign debt reached unsustainable levels, so did the cost of borrowing, if it was even possible at all. The current situation confronting Italy and Greece, whose debts date from the early 1990s, long before the 2007-8 global financial crisis, support this view.

The politically charged discussion, especially sharp in the past week or so, has falsely equated our finding of a negative association between debt and growth with an unambiguous call for austerity.

We agree that growth is an elusive goal at times of high debt. We know that cutting spending and raising taxes is tough in a slow-growth economy with persistent unemployment. Austerity seldom works without structural reforms – for example, changes in taxes, regulations and labor market policies – and if poorly designed, can disproportionately hit the poor and middle class. Our consistent advice has been to avoid withdrawing fiscal stimulus too quickly, a position identical to that of most mainstream economists.

In some cases, we have favored more radical proposals, including debt restructuring (a polite term for partial default) of public and private debts. Such restructurings helped deal with the debt buildup during World War I and the Depression. We have long favored write-downs of sovereign debt and senior bank debt in the European periphery (Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain) to unlock growth.

In the United States, we support reducing mortgage principal on homes that are underwater (where the mortgage is higher than the value of the home). We have also written about plausible solutions that involve moderately higher inflation and “financial repression” – pushing down inflation-adjusted interest rates, which effectively amounts to a tax on bondholders. This strategy contributed to the significant debt reductions that followed World War II.

In short: many countries around the world have extraordinarily high public debts by historical standards, especially when medical and old-age support programs are taken into account. Resolving these debt burdens usually involves a transfer, often painful, from savers to borrowers. This time is no different, and the latest academic kerfuffle should not divert our attention from that fact.

Carmen M. Reinhart is a professor of the international financial system, and Kenneth S. Rogoff is a professor of public policy and economics, both at Harvard.

In an appendix to this op-ed essay, the authors further defend their findings that high public debt is associated with lower economic growth.

Discuss This


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Terence Lennon 06520636

May 2, 2013, 11:35 a.m.

“austerity is a consequence, not a punishment. “

I read you all the time and respect your views - i think you are fair minded and not ideology driven - however - austerity is a consequence to those responsible for the actions that leads to its recommendation - to those who must suffer it while having had no part in the decisions that led to it - it is indeed punishment. Austerity may shave some wealth from the accounts of the fortunate but it doesn’t effect the food on the family table or the roof over their heads. I fear we have lost site of the fact the America IS ALL OF US - i see very little caring for those on the bottom (that is not directed at you JM but a general observation about the new class of “haves”)- i fear we are changing from a society with a capitalist economy (which has served us extremely well) to a capitalist society where every decision is driven by bottom line considerations.

Warren Stephens

May 2, 2013, 10:57 a.m.

“As I wrote two weeks ago, austerity is a consequence, not a punishment.”

What John also wrote two weeks ago is “…austerity means you are reducing a fiscal deficit, and doing so will reduce growth in the short term.”

“Austerity” cannot be CONFINED to a discussion about interest rates and fiscal spreadsheets! 

What the economists leave out is that even though the REAL COST of Austerity cannot be measured in dollars, it should not be ignored.

The RUSE going on is that economists can only account for the economic impact, not the social or political impacts, of their Austerity prescriptions – like a one-legged stool compared to the 3-prong Keynesian approach (which do get social and political “buy-in”).

If during an Austerity period a segment of the population sinks down far enough economically to DESTROY their social cohesion then it could get to the point where people simply take to crime, or a black-market, or drug use, or where people are burning themselves in the streets (like before the Arab Spring).  Or, the result of the Austerity can be to WRITE-OFF a generation of youngsters who become unemployable slackers (called “Freeters” in Japan after long term unemployment there). 

To be fair and clear, shouldn’t the supporters of Austerity provide an estimate of how much contraction and unemployment is necessary?  And for how long? And if those estimates are not forthcoming, when would we know if Austerity began to seem as if “the short term” was not ever going to end?  Or is it assumed to be an infallible approach?  Needing perhaps indefinite support?

The only people who might support Austerity long enough are the people who can afford to support it long enough—and that may not be enough.

Jim Summers

May 1, 2013, 9:49 a.m.

The problem is that we don’t know when the “Bang” moment occurs.  If we impose austerity, we know that will harm GDP.  We used to think austerity would help GDP (by restoring confidence), but now we know that austerity causes significant, disproportionate, damage to GDP.

On the other hand, at some point, a lack of austerity causes high debt, with is associated with lower GDP.  Even if we assume that high debt causes a decrease in GDP (and RR explicitly state they do not claim that), we don’t know what level of debt is a problem.  We simply can’t say whether any particular level of debt will cause a decrease in GDP.

So, under current economic conditions we know that austerity will harm GDP, but we are only pretty sure that a lack of austerity will cause GDP to decline, eventually.  Given the certainty of harm from imposing austerity, and the doubts about how much of a problem our current debt level is causing, it makes sense to err on the side of non-austerity. 

We probably have time to run high deficits for a while longer, but we had better get smarter about how we spend those deficits, to decrease the unemployment rate as much as possible.

Abel Rossenblat

May 1, 2013, 6:45 a.m.

Austerity ia a consequence.you cannot live over yr possibilities with other people money.Statiatically wrong or not when yr debt is over logical limit high growth is not possible.
I leave in an underdeveloped country and we know how people leaves with us 200 a month working hard.Why others doing less should earn 5 or more times more.Only for trust but one day is over and you shoul come to reality

Will Wohler

May 1, 2013, 2:20 a.m.

Two points:
1] seems the intensity of the scorn heaped on R&R is proportional to the accuracy of R&R’s claims, no?
2] but why should SAVERS be conscripted to transfer wealth to Borrowers?  (& ALL such transfers are painful)  Talk about “Moral Hazard”!  What an awful lesson does that wicked policy teach!

will wohler

A. Dorrance

April 30, 2013, 9 p.m.

RR served as intellectual justification for austerity during a recession. Whatever they intended, the perceived lesson was that further debt would impair growth worse than austerity (which is depressing the economy, a point I don’t think anyone is denying).

In their op-ed, RR now state that the direction of causality is still up for debate—allowing that low growth might be the cause, and high debt the effect, rather than vice versa. If so, austerity worsens the situation.

There is another rationale for austerity, that it would improve the economy by improving confidence in a nation’s fiscal probity. So far the Europe experience has not supported this.

The last justification for austerity is the “bang!” moment. Given the Japanese example, this seems not an immediate concern. We have a long term problem with entitlements, which will doubtlessly lead to such a moment, but the immediate problem is the high unemployment rate and slow economy growth.

So what other rationale is there for avoiding stimulative fiscal policy in a sluggish economy?

My fear is that current cuts in education and infrastructure funding will worsen our growth potential. Rather than improving our future, austerity may be sabotaging it.

David Oldham

April 30, 2013, 7:16 p.m.

The R&R data revelation was a gift from heaven for some countries burdened by austerity measures. Those apposing the necessary pain were not about to wait for explanations, especially as the IMF had already gone into reverse gear on the subject. Could that be the French influence therein !

Hang emhi

April 30, 2013, 5:53 p.m.

Oh John - you had a chance to wake up from your unfortunate focus on Gov debt and instead you chose confirmation bias looking for any excuse to make an excuse for this horrible piece of research.  Private sector debt is the elephant in the china shop, and all you ever want to do is notice the gnat flying around the room.  But since you wrote a book entirely based on how Gov debt is going to kill us, you are hopeless to ever see the truth.  Like this http://pragcap.com/still-missing-the-point-on-reinhart-rogoff or this http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2012/09/138-years-of-economic-history-show-that-keen-and-minsky-are-right-and-all-of-the-mainstream-economists-are-wrong.html

Scott Wolfel

April 30, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

Also interesting, but not emphasized elsewhere in the debate is the ~1.1% increase in GDP to 4.2% in both the RR and HAP data for debt to GDP of < 30%. (F.F. Wiley charts.) While all of the caveats apply, and we’re not going back to 30%, this implies that we might be trimming 2% off of potential growth as a result of our government’s 3 decade addiction to debt. What would things look like with 4% growth, which is unimaginable at this point, instead of 2% “new normal” with the ever-present tail risk of a bang moment and/or turning Japanese.

Also agree with Wiley’s critique of HAP for playing dirty pool in not giving RR the heads up after they shared their data.

Sadly, these debates are not about economics, and finding the cause and cure for our current malaise, but political economy and defending one’s preferred policy positions. The Republicans started on the road to fiscal irresponsibility and deficits with the Reagan and Bush 2 tax cuts and deficits, while the Democrats and Keynesians, as opposed to Keynes himself, seem to believe that more government spending is the solution to every problem and we keep digging.


April 30, 2013, 2:23 p.m.

The private debt of the banks got converted to sovereign debt. Would not taxes (transaction tax)on the financial section that created the huge, bad debt be a more logical approach to paying down sovereign debt rather than austerity? It’s my government but it is not my financial sector.

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