When we left off, we’d concluded that the relationship between g, the growth rate of GDP, and i, the after-tax interest rate on government debt, was central to the evolution of public debt. When g > i, any primary deficit is sustainable, in the sense that the debt-GDP ratio converges to a finite value; when i > g, no primary deficit is sustainable, and a primary surplus, while formally sustainable at a certain exact value, occupies a knife-edge. Which invites the natural question, so which is bigger, usually?
There are articles that discuss this (tho not as many as you might think). Here’s a good recent article by Jamie Galbraith; I also like this one by Tony Aspromourgos, and “The Intertemporal Budget Constraint and the Sustainability of Budget Deficits” by Arestis and Sawyer. (I’m sorry, I can’t find a version of it online). An earlier and more mainstream, but for our current purposes especially interesting, take is this piece by Olivier Blanchard. Blanchard says:
If i – g were negative, the government would no longer need to generate primary surpluses to achieve sustainability. … The government could even run permanent primary deficits of any size, and these would eventually lead to a positive but constant level of debt… Theory suggests that this case, which corresponds to what is known as ‘dynamic inefficiency’, cannot be excluded, and that in such a case, a government should, on welfare grounds, probably issue more debt until the pressure on interest rates made them at least equal to the growth rate.
So much depends on whether the growth rate exceeds the interest rate, or not. Well, so, does it?
The funny thing about this passage in context is that Blanchard acknowledges that over most of the postwar period, the growth rate has exceeded the interest rate. But, he says, the professional consensus is that interest rates ought to equal or exceed growth rates, so he’ll stick with that assumption for the rest of the article. (There’s almost a genre of economics articles that freely admit a key assumption doesn’t seem to be consistently satisfied in practice, but then blithely go on assuming it. The Marshall-Lerner-Robinson condition is a favorite in this vein.) But we’re not here to mock; we’re here to call the Blanchard rule, the prescription that if i < g, the federal deficit ought to be higher.
Below are graphs of the growth rate and after-tax 10-year government bond rate for 10 OECD countries. Both are deflated by the CPI; the tax rate is the ratio of central government taxes to GDP. This is probably a bit high, but on the other hand the average maturity of government debt is less than 10 years in many OECD countries — in the US it is currently around 4.7 years — so these two biases might more or less cancel each other out, leaving the red line close to the economically relevant interest rate. Source is the OECD statistics site. I’ve excluded 2008-2010 since the Great Recession pulls growth rates sharply down in a (let’s hope!) misleading way. The lighter black line is the growth trend.
Clearly we can’t exclude the relevance of the Blanchard rule; for much of the time, for many rich countries, the growth rate of GDP has exceeded the 10-year interest rate. At other times, interest has exceeded growth. What we see in most cases is a fairly stable growth rate, combined with an interest rate that jumps sharply up around 1980 and then drifts downward from somewhere in the 1990s. At some point soon, I hope, I’ll produce decompositions of the change in the fiscal position into the interest rate, the growth rate, changes in taxes and expenditure induced by the growth rate, and autonomous changes in taxes and spending. I suspect the first will be the most important, and the last the least. But in the meantime, we can say just looking at these graphs that changing interest rates are an important component of fiscal dynamics, so it’s wrong to think just in terms of the primary balance.
Which suggests — coming back to the earlier debate with John Quiggin — that if we are concerned with the long-term fiscal position, we should spend at least as much time worrying about policies that affect the interest rate on government debt relative to the growth rate, as we should about taxes relative to expenditures. And we should not assume a priori that a primary deficit is unsustainable.