Basic macroeconomics again: government savings, private deficits and the Ricardian debt equivalence theorem
If you brush up your basic macroeconomics you will remember this: in an open economy, if national saving is insufficient to finance national spending, an influx of foreign capital will be needed to balance the accounts. That’s the story of the US -or Spain-. Where we invest (spend) more than we save (earn).
In times of high leveraging, where the private sector has grown too indebted, a deleveraging process is mandatory. Whether it takes ten or five years, it doesn’t really matter. It has to happen. It will happen.
But what if it’s the private sector that has gone too indebted? How can the public sector help?
Well, it’s not only that, as I said, the national balance must equal the foreign financial balance. The fact is that the national balance is necessarily made of two balances that add to each other: the public sector balance and the private sector balance.
That means that the fiscal balance plus the private sector balance must be compensated by the external balance. In other words: money goes out of one sector only to enter another, whether outside or inside the country. But it’s a zero-sum game.
If the government is saving, the only way that the private sector can save is by means of exporting, suddenly, a lot more.
Otherwise, more saving by the government, means more private sector deficit thus more leveraging.
Hmmm, sounds ingenious, but makes sense too.
Can we expect all the countries to suddenly double their exports? No way that’s going to happen as exports are also a zero-sum game. What someone exports, someone else is importing. So, what’s the alternative?
Let me say it again in plain words: if the governments reduce their debts is because part of the taxes that are being paid by the private sectors will be committed to paying creditors, that is, they will go out of the cycle. More taxes, less returns in services or infrastructures. Yes, that is, hurting the private sector.
What can a government do to reduce the debt burden? Obviously, inflate prices, which in times close to deflation is no simple task to do. But again reducing the savings of their citizens, whether people or companies.
But it has to be sudden, unexpected. As creditors wouldn’t accept low interest yields if they were expecting inflation. Credibility is important and we don’t want to lose our reputation as a country.
Let’s say that you can only lose your reputation once, just like your virginity. Next time you won’t be able to make this move or to get credit at such low rates.
So, what’s the alternative to increasingly indebting the private sector? Because if you do for a long time, the increasing frailty will become evident, more than evident, obvious.
Let’s increase debt to reduce deficits? Bonds maybe? Some safe heaven for governments?
Maybe they are for governments but, in the end, they must be paid off sometime. The contested Ricardian debt equivalence theorem states that government expenditure on the private sector is equivalent whether it’s financed by taxes or bonds.
Okay, there’s a lot of restrictions to that Ricardian debt equivalence, or Ricardo-Barro equivalence proposition. We may not care about our descendants so we may not care to indebt them either. But one thing is clear: a debt is a debt and, along the road, it must be paid. The equivalence says that, somehow, the private sector will get ready to pay that and the ultimate effect will be the same.
The lesson? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Maybe getting government deficits under control right now is going to make the economy even worse. Believe me or not, it doesn’t matter. Just do something for me…
Stop seeing the government deficits and debts in isolation. They are part of a bigger system.
At the end of the day, there’s the need for more competitive if countries are to scape the leverage trap. And productivity adjustments come with a high price, be it devaluations where they are still possible (beware your reputation, U.S.) or by means of drastic reduction of labor factor costs… yes… wages (beware Spain).
Okay, that was tough. Sorry. Not the usual me. Lots of theoretical threads I needed to spit out. Oh, is it going to be the first post without a picture?
No way! Here it is. Commonsensical: