Monthly Archives: June 2009

Fiscal Sustainability

James K. Galbraith (via Julie Kosterlitz) on “What Is Fiscally — And Politically — ‘Sustainable’?”

James K. Galbraith, Professor of Economics, University of Texas

“Chairman Bernanke may, if he likes, try to define “fiscal sustainability” as a stable ratio of public debt to GDP. But this is, of course, nonsense. It is Ben Bernanke as Humpty-Dumpty, straight from Lewis Carroll, announcing that words mean whatever he chooses them to mean.

Now, we may admit that the power of the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System is very great. But would someone please point out to me, the section of the Federal Reserve Act, wherein that functionary is empowered to define phrases just as he likes?

A stable ratio of federal debt to GDP may or may not be the right policy objective. But it is neither more nor less “sustainable,” under different economic conditions, than a rising or a falling ratio.

In World War II, from 1940 through 1945, the ratio of US federal debt to GDP rose to about 125 percent. Was this unsustainable? Evidently not. The country won the war, and went on to 30 years of prosperity, during which the debt/GDP ratio gradually fell. Then, beginning in the early 1980s, the ratio started rising again, peaked around 1993, and fell once more.

Thus, a stable ratio of debt to GDP is not a normal feature of modern history. Gradual drift in one direction or the other is normal. There seems no great reason to fear drift in one direction or the other, so long as it is appropriate to the underlying economic conditions.

History has a second lesson. In a crisis, the ratio of public debt to GDP must rise. Why? Because a crisis – and this really is by definition – is a national emergency, and national emergencies demand government action. That was true of the Great Depression, true of war, and true of the Great Crisis we’re now in. Moreover, we’ve designed the system to do much of this work automatically. As income falls and unemployment rises, we have an automatic system of progressive taxation and relief, which generates large budget deficits and rising deficits. Hooray! This is precisely what puts dollars in the pockets of households and private businesses, and stabilizes the economy. Then, when the private economy recovers, the same mechanisms go to work in the opposite direction.

For this reason, a sharp rise in the ratio of debt to GDP, reflecting the strong fiscal response to the crisis, was necessary, desirable, and a good thing. It is not a hidden evil. It is not a secret shame, or even an embarrassment. It does not need to be reversed in the near or even the medium term. If and as the private economy recovers, the ratio will begin again to drift down. And if the private economy does not recover, we will have much bigger problems to worry about, than the debt-to-GDP ratio.

It is therefore a big mistake to argue that the next thing the administration and Congress should do, is focus on stabilizing the debt-to-GDP ratio or bringing it back to some “desired” value. Instead, the ratio should go to whatever value is consistent with a policy of economic recovery and a return to high employment. The primary test of the policy is not what happens to the debt ratio, but what happens to the economy.


Now, what about those frightening budget projections? My friend Bob Reischauer has a scary scenario, in which a very high public-debt-to-GDP ratio leaves the US vulnerable to “pressure from foreign creditors” – a euphemism, one presumes, for the very scary Chinese. Under that pressure, interest rates rise, and interest payments crowd out other spending, forcing draconian cuts down the line. To avert this, Bob has persuaded himself that social spending cuts are required now, not less draconian but implemented gradually. Thus the frog should be cooked bit by bit, to avoid an unpleasant scene later on when the water is really boiling hot.

With due respect, Bob’s argument displays a very vague view of monetary operations and the determination of interest rates. The reality is in front of our noses: Ben Bernanke sets whatever short term interest rate he likes. And Treasury can and does issue whatever short-term securities it likes at a rate pretty close to Bernanke’s fed funds rate. If the Treasury doesn’t like the long term rate, it doesn’t need to issue long-term securities: it can always fund itself at very close to whatever short rate Ben Bernanke chooses to set.

The Chinese can do nothing about this. If they choose not to renew their T-bills as they mature, what does the Federal Reserve do? It debits the securities account, and credits the reserve account! This is like moving funds from a savings account to a checking account. Pretty soon, a Beijing bureaucrat will have to answer why he isn’t earning the tiny bit of extra interest available on the T-bills. End of story.

The only thing the scary foreign creditors can do, if they really do not like the returns available from the US, is sell their dollar assets for some other currency. This will cause a decline in the dollar, some rise in US inflation, and an improvement in our exports. (It will also cause shrieks of pain from European exporters, who will urge their central bank to buy the dollars that the foreigners choose to sell.) The rise in inflation will bring up nominal GDP relative to the debt, and lower the debt-to-GDP ratio. Thus, the crowding-out scenario Bob sketches will not occur.

I’m not particularly in favor of this outcome. But unlike Bob Reischauer’s scenario, this one could possibly occur. If it did, it would lower real living standards across the board. This is unpleasant, but it would be much fairer than focusing preemptive cuts on the low-income and vulnerable elderly, as those who keep talking about Social Security and Medicare would do.


Now, it is true, of course, that you can run a model in which some part of the budget – say, health care – is projected to grow more rapidly than GDP for, say, 50 years, thus blowing itself up to some fantastic proportion of total income and blowing the public finances to smithereens. But this ignores Stein’s Law, which states that when a trend cannot continue it will stop, and Galbraith’s Corollary, which states that when something is impossible, it will not happen.

Why can’t health care rise to 50 percent of GDP? Because, obviously, such a cost inflation would show up in – the inflation statistics! – which are part of GDP. So the assumption of gross, uncontrolled inflation in health care costs contradicts the assumption of stable nominal GDP growth. Again, the consequence of uncontrolled inflation is… inflation! And this increases GDP relative to the debt, so that the ratio of debt to GDP does not, in fact, explode as predicted.

I do not know why the CBO and OMB continue to issue blatantly inconsistent forecasts, but someone should ask them.

Further confusion in this area stems from treating Social Security alongside Medicare as part of some common “entitlement problem.” In reality, health care costs and haphazard health insurance coverage are genuine problems, and should be dealt with. Social Security is just a transfer program. It merely rearranges income. For this reason it cannot be inflationary; the only issue posed is whether the elderly population as a whole deserves to kept out of poverty, or not.

Paying the expenses of the elderly through a public insurance program has the enormous advantage of spreading the burden over all other citizens, whether they have living parents or not, and of ensuring that all the elderly are covered, whether they have living children or not. A public system is also low-cost and efficient, and this too is a big advantage. Apart from that, whether the identical revenue streams are passed through public or private budgets obviously has no implications whatever for the fiscal sustainability of the country as a whole.


What is politically sustainable is nothing more than what the political community agrees to at any given time. I have been surprised, and pleased, by the political community’s acquiescence in the working of the automatic stabilizers and expansion program so far. The deficits are bigger, and therefore more effective, than many economists thought would be tolerated. That’s a good sign. But it would be a tragedy if alarmist arguments now prevailed, grossly undermining job prospects for millions of the unemployed.

Let me note, in passing, that Chairman Bernanke should please read the Federal Reserve Act, and focus on the objectives actually specified in it, including “maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.” He does not have a remit to add stable debt-to-GDP ratios or other transient academic ideas to the list. One might think that the embarrassing experience with inflation targeting would be enough to warn the Chairman against bringing too much of his academic baggage to the day job. “

Question: “How big is the debt problem?” Answer: “ENORMOUS”

By Eric Tymoigne

The U.S. now has the highest ratio of debt-to-GDP in its history: nearly 5. And, while much has been made of the public sector’s growing debt levels, private finance has been the leading contributor to this massive growth of indebtedness. Two other contributors are GSEs (private/public financial sector) and households.

Figure 1: Total Financial Liabilities by Sectors Relative to GDP
Sources: Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennium Edition, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, NIPA, Flow of Funds (from 1945).

Securitization, together with internationalization of finance, has been the main driver of those tendencies, enabling the financial sector to reap large profits…until recently.

Figure 2: Proportion of Corporate Profit Received by the Financial Sector*

*Excludes Federal Reserve Banks.
Source: BEA. Tables 6.16B, 6.16C, and 6.16D. Corporate profit with inventory valuation and net of capital consumption.

Interestingly, debt levels in the 1980s rivaled those of the Great Depression, which gave a hint that the quality of indebtedness matters as much as the quantity of debt. Take mortgages for example: IO mortgages were a major problem during the Great Depression, which led to a reform of the mortgage industry toward long-term fixed, fully-amortized mortgages. Until the early/mid 2000s, IOs and other exotic mortgages were of limited proportion or non-existent, but as the quality of mortgage deteriorated so did the capacity to sustain a given level of indebtedness.

Solving the debt problem is going to take many years and radical steps (some of them on the distributive and employment sides rather than the financial side). Already financial institutions are cutting the amounts due on credit cards (sometimes in half!) if customers are willing to repay in full at once. Creditors are beginning to understand the enormous problem posed by massive indebtedness. Policymakers should take note: a sustainable economic recovery cannot take place without first allowing private sector balance sheets to recover.

The Failure of the Mainstream Model

By Stephanie Kelton

In an appearance on Meet the Press this morning, Vice President Joe Biden insisted that the president’s $787 billion stimulus package has already “saved or created” 150,000 jobs. The show’s moderator, David Gregory, challenged him on this point, noting that, at 9.4%, the unemployment rate has risen well above the 8% maximum predicted by top Obama advisors in January 2009.

Biden’s response: “We took the mainstream model.” And therein lies the problem.

For as near as I can tell, the mainstream models have been successful at just one thing: failure. They predicted that: subprime loans would not default at substantially different rates than prime loans; the riskiness of credit default swaps and other mortgage backed securities could be efficiently judged; deregulated financial markets were capable of self-policing; and so on. And they were wrong.

Even Alan Greenspan lost faith:

The essential problem is that our models – both risk models and econometric models – as complex as they have become, are still too simple to capture the full array of governing variables that drive global economic reality. . . models, as we currently employ them, are structurally deficient.”

The prediction that comes out of any macroeconomic model is, to a very large extent, driven by the assumptions that underlie it. The mainstream models tend to assume things like: efficient markets, rational expectations, infinite planning horizons, and so on. The rosier the assumptions, the rosier the predictions.

President Obama believed his advisors when they told him that the fiscal stimulus would keep the unemployment rate from rising above 8%, but their forecasts were wrong. They were wrong because their underlying assumptions turned out to be too optimistic.

It’s time to abandon the mainstream model and the rose-colored glasses that go with it.

Why We Should Abandon the Free Market

James Galbraith’s lecture at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School in New York.

Why Regulation Matters

James Galbraith’s lecture at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School in New York.

Economic Growth and Public Investment

You may check James K. Galbraith’s interesting conference paper “The Macroeconomic Considerations of a Public Investment Strategy” here.
An important point is that “contrary to popular myth, U.S. economic development has never been solely the result of private investment.”
He goes on to demystify the belief that government deficits crowd out private investment and that the US federal goverment relies on foreigners to finance its spending.

“Interest Rates. Critics assert that efforts to expand the scope of the public sector will drive up interest rates and crowd out private business investment. The accusation is particularly likely to be heard when a proposal explicitly foresees the use of the credit market, deficits, and public debt to finance the expansion.
Are these fears justified? There is a two-part answer to this question, the first related to economic theory, and the second to the specific conditions facing the United States in the world credit markets. The theory of “crowding out” is based on a common misconception of the nature of savings in our economy, namely the idea that savings are a “pool,” fixed in size, from which the public and private sectors alike draw to finance their desired rates of spending. No such pool exists. Rather, what we measure as savings is created after the fact, by the spending decisions of governments and private businesses. These decisions create income; the difference between income and consumption (the latter, strongly established by habit), is savings…We can conclude, first, that there is no direct connection between federal budget deficits or surpluses and long-term interest rates.”
Financing Abroad and the Dollar: The deficit in the external accounts is the accounting counterpart—the exact equal—of the sum of public and private sector deficits in the domestic economy.
This phenomenon is often referred to as “borrowing from foreigners to finance current consumption,” but again the shorthand is misleading. When an American purchases a Japanese car, credit is created and extended by an American bank.
Rather, a bank loan made in the United States has created a dollar asset, which subsequently has been purchased by an institution (the Bank of Japan) that has no immediate use for it and merely chooses to store it in a liquid, interest- bearing form.”

The Predator State

James K. Galbraith’s new book explained.

James K. Galbraith and The Predator State

James K. Galbraith discuss his new book, “The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too.”

James K. Galbraith on the Global Financial Crisis

See below James K. Galbraith’s lecture in Dublin, June 5 2009, at the Institute for International and European Affairs, on the current economic crisis. With Q&A and a small postscript.

Financial Architecture Fundamentals

Click here to view Warren Mosler’s presentation on financial architecture fundamentals.