Tag Archives: Public debt

Reading List on ‘Free’ or ‘Not-so-free’ Public Debt

Risk, Discounting, and Dynamic Efficiency

In the presence of risk, a comparison of the risk-free interest rate and the expected growth rate is insufficient to assess whether an economy is dynamically efficient or inefficient. Stochastic discount factors—not risk-free interest rates—enter the government’s budget constraint, even if debt is safe.

These points are made, for example, by Andrew Abel, N. Gregory Mankiw, Lawrence Summers, and Richard Zeckhauser (Assessing Dynamic Efficiency: Theory and Evidence, REStud 56(1), 1989),

the issue of dynamic efficiency can be resolved by comparing the level of investment with the cash flows generated by production after the payment of wages … dynamic efficiency cannot be assessed by comparing the safe rate of interest and the average growth rate of the capital stock, output, or any other accounting aggregate,

or Henning Bohn (The Sustainability of Budget Deficits in a Stochastic Economy, JMCB 27(1), 1995),

discounting at the safe interest rate is usually incorrect. … popular fiscal policy “indicators” like deficit levels or debt-GNP ratios may provide very little information about sustainability. … the intertemporal budget constraint imposes very few restrictions on the average primary balance.

Recent work in which these themes appear include papers by Zhengyang Jiang, Hanno Lustig, Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, and Mindy Xiaolan (Manufacturing Risk-free Government Debt, NBER wp 27786, 2020), Robert Barro (r Minus g, NBER wp 28002, 2020), or Stan Olijslagers, Nander de Vette, and Sweder van Wijnbergen (Debt Sustainability when r−g<0: No Free Lunch after All, CEPR dp 15478, 2020).

Intergenerational Risk Sharing

With overlapping generations the way the government manages its debt has implications for intergenerational risk sharing, see for example Henning Bohn (Risk Sharing in a Stochastic Overlapping Generations Economy, mimeo, 1998), Robert Shiller (Social Security and Institutions for Intergenerational, Intragenerational, and International Risk Sharing, Carnegie-Rochester Conference on Public Policy 50, 1999), or Gabrielle Demange (On Optimality of Intergenerational Risk Sharing, Economic Theory 20(1), 2002).

Long-Run Debt Dynamics and Fiscal Space

Dmitriy Sergeyev and Neil Mehrotra (Debt Sustainability in a Low Interest World, CEPR dp 15282, 2020) offer an analysis of long-run debt dynamics under the assumption that the primary surplus systematically, and strongly responds to the debt-to-GDP ratio such that the government’s intertemporal budget constraint is necessarily satisfied:

Population growth and productivity growth have opposing effects on the debt-to-GDP ratio due to their opposing effects on the real interest rate. Lower population growth leaves the borrowing rate unchanged while directly lowering output growth, shifting the average debt-to-GDP ratio higher. By contrast, when the elasticity of intertemporal substitution is less than one, a decline in productivity growth has a more than a one-for-one effect on the real interest rate, lowering the cost of servicing the debt and thereby reducing the average debt-to-GDP ratio. To the extent that higher uncertainty accounts for low real interest rates, we find that
the variance of the log debt-to-GDP ratio unambiguously increases with higher output
uncertainty. However, uncertainty also has an effect on the mean debt-to-GDP ratio that
depends on the coefficient of relative risk aversion. Higher uncertainty lowers the real
interest rate but this effect may be outweighed by an Ito’s lemma term due to Jensen’s
inequality that works in the opposite direction.

Sergeyev and Mehrotra also consider the effects of rare disasters as well as of a maximum primary surplus which implies that debt becomes defaultable and the interest rate on debt features an endogenous risk premium, generating the possibility of a “tipping point” with a slow moving debt crises as in Guido Lorenzoni and Ivan Werning (Slow Moving Debt Crises, AER 109(9), 2019).

Ricardo Reis (The Constraint on Public Debt when r<g But g<m, mimeo, 2020) analyzes a non-stochastic framework under the assumption that the marginal product of capital, m, exceeds the growth rate, g, which in turn exceeds the risk-free interest rate, r. Reis considers the case where m is the relevant discount rate, for example because r features a liquidity premium:

there is still a meaningful government budget constraint once future surpluses and debt are discounted by the marginal product of capital.

He shows the following:

  • The debt due to a one-time primary deficit can be rolled over indefinitely and disappears asymptotically as long as r<g.
  • With permanent primary deficits that grow at the same rate as debt and output, the government’s intertemporal budget constraint features a bubble component due to r<m. This corresponds to the usual seignorage revenue measure (see p. 173 in Niepelt, Macroeconomic Analysis, 2019).
  • Suppose that from tomorrow on, the primary deficit and debt quotas are given by d and b, respectively. Then, the present value of total net revenues in the government’s budget constraint equals [- d + (m – r)*b] / (m-g). Both m>g and g>r relax the constraint, as does a lower r.
  • Along a balanced growth path, b = [- d + (m – r)*b] / (m-g) and thus, d = (g-r)*b where d is assumed to be positive. Reis argues that b cannot be larger than total assets relative to GDP. Accordingly, the deficit cannot exceed total assets times (g-r).

Reis concludes that most of the bubble component “has already been used.” In addition to developing a model that yields m>g>r in equilibrium he also discusses the role of inflation (stable inflation generates fiscal space because it renders debt safer and thus increases demand for debt) and inequality (more inequality increases fiscal space).

Blanchard’s Presidential Address

In his presidential address, Olivier Blanchard (Public Debt and Low Interest Rates, AER 109(4), 2019) argues that the risk-free interest rate has fallen short of average US growth rate (and similarly, in other countries). Importantly—and implicitly addressing Abel, Mankiw, Summers, Zeckhauser, and Bohn (see above)—he also argues that risk is not that much of an issue as far as the sustainability of public debt is concerned:

Jensen’s inequality is thus not an issue here. In short, if we assume that the future will be like the past (admittedly a big if), debt rollovers appear feasible. While the debt ratio may increase for some time due to adverse shocks to growth or positive shocks to the interest rate, it will eventually decrease over time. In other words, higher debt may not imply a higher fiscal cost.

Most of his formal analysis doesn’t focus on debt though. Instead he analyzes the effects of risk-free social security transfers from young to old in a stochastic OLG economy. (There are close parallels between debt and such transfers to the old that are financed by contemporaneous taxes on the young.) In a steady-state with very low interest rates higher transfers have two effects on welfare, by (i) providing an attractive substitute for savings and by (ii) reducing capital accumulation and thereby lowering wages and raising the interest rate. If the economy initially is dynamically inefficient both effects are welfare improving because (i) capital accumulation with a low return is replaced by higher yielding intergenerational transfers and (ii) lower wages and higher interest rates are attractive, starting from a situation with a low interest rate. In a stochastic economy the first channel yields welfare gains as long as the growth rate exceeds the risk-free rate, and the second channel yields welfare gains (approximately) when the growth rate exceeds the marginal product of capital. Blanchard argues

[b]e this as it may, the analysis suggests that the welfare effects of a transfer may not necessarily be adverse, or, if adverse, may not be very large.

In the corresponding case with debt there is another effect because the intergenerational transfer is not risk-free; the size of this additional effect depends on the path of the risk-free interest rates (Blanchard assumes that the debt level is stabilized which requires net tax payments by the young to reflect the contemporaneous risk-free rate). In the slightly different case where debt is increased once and then rolled over, without adjusting taxes in the future, the sustainability and welfare implications are ambiguous and critically depend on the production function:

In the linear case, debt rollovers typically do not fail [my emphasis] and welfare is increased throughout. For the generation receiving the initial transfer associated with debt issuance, the effect is clearly positive and large. For later generations, while they are, at the margin, indifferent between holding safe debt or risky capital, the inframarginal gains (from a less risky portfolio) imply slightly larger utility. But the welfare gain is small … . In the Cobb-Douglas case however, this positive effect is more than offset by the price effect, and while welfare still goes up for the first generation (by 2 percent), it is typically negative thereafter. In the case of successful debt rollovers, the average adverse welfare cost decreases as debt decreases over time. In the case of unsuccessful rollovers, the adjustment implies a larger welfare loss when it happens. If we take the Cobb-Douglas example to be more representative, are these Ponzi gambles, as Ball, Elmendorf, and Mankiw (1998) have called them, worth it from a welfare viewpoint? This clearly depends on the relative weight the policymaker puts on the utility of different generations [my emphasis].

Blanchard argues that the marginal product of capital may be smaller than commonly assumed, implying that it is more likely that the welfare effects working through (ii) are positive (those working through (i) are very likely positive). Finally, he also presents some additional potential arguments pro and con higher public debt.

Blanchard’s work has attracted substantial criticism, for instance at the January 2020 ASSA meetings (see this previous post). In a short paper presented at the meetings, Johannes Brumm, Laurence Kotlikoff, and Felix Kubler (Leveraging Posterity’s Prosperity?) point out that a negative difference between average interest and growth rates is not necessarily indicative of dynamic inefficiency (see the discussion above) and that Blanchard’s analysis disregards tax distortions as well as the welfare effects from intergenerational risk sharing (again, see above):

To see the distinction between risk-sharing and a Ponzi scheme, modify B’s two-period model to include agents working when old if they don’t randomly become disabled. Now workers face second-period asset income and labor earnings risk. The government has no safe asset in which to invest. If it borrows, invests in capital, and taxes bond holders its excess return, “safe” debt is identical to risky capital. But if the net taxes are only levied on the non-disabled, bonds become a valued risk-mitigating asset and their return can be driven far below zero. This scheme could be, and to some extend it is, implemented through progressive taxation. If, observing this gap between growth and safe rates, the government decides to institute an “efficient” Ponzi scheme with a fixed pension benefit financed on a pay-go basis by taxes on workers, net wages when young will be more variable, raising generation-specific risk and potentially producing an outcome in which no generation is better off and at least one is worse off.

Brumm, Kotlikoff, and Kubler also note that the effective interest rate at which US households are borrowing is much higher than the borrowing rate of the government; this undermines Blanchard’s approach to gauge the welfare implications. And they point out that the scheme suggested by Blanchard could harm other countries by reducing global investment.

Jasmina Hasanhodzic (Simulating the Blanchard Conjecture in a Multi-Period Life-Cycle Model) simulates a richer OLG model and rejects the Blanchard conjecture of Pareto gains due to higher transfers:

It shows that the safe rate on government debt can, on average, be far less than the economy’s growth rate without its implying that ongoing redistribution from the young to the old is Pareto improving. Indeed, in a 10-period, OLG, CGE model, whose average safe rate averages negative 2 percent on an annual basis, welfare losses to future generations resulting from the introduction of pay-go Social Security, financed with a 15 percent payroll tax, are enormous—roughly 20 percent measured as a compensating variation relative to no policy.

Relative to Blanchard’s simulations, her model implies more negative consequences of crowding out on wages, a higher tax burden from the transfer scheme, and more induced old-age consumption risk.

Michael Boskin (How, When and Why Deficits Are Dangerous) offers a broad discussion of potential weaknesses of Blanchard’s analysis. Richard Evens (Public Debt, Interest Rates, and Negative Shocks) questions Blanchard’s simulations on calibration grounds and notes that he couldn’t replicate some of Blanchard’s findings.

On his blog, John Cochrane argues along similar lines as Ricardo Reis: Even if r<g, expected primary deficits are so large that debt quotas will explode nevertheless.

Note: This post was updated several times.

“Austerity,” EJ, forthcoming

Economic Journal, forthcoming, with Harris Dellas. PDF.

We study the optimal debt and investment decisions of a sovereign with private information. The separating equilibrium is characterized by a cap on the current account. A sovereign repays debt amount due that exceeds default costs in order to signal creditworthiness and smooth consumption. Accepting funding conditional on investment/reforms relaxes borrowing constraints, even when investment does not create collateral, but it depresses current consumption. The model contains the signalling elements emphasized by creditors in the Greek austerity programs and is consistent with the reduction in the loans issued by Greece and their interest rate following the 2015 election.

“Reserves For All? Central Bank Digital Currency, Deposits, and their (Non)-Equivalence,” IJCB, 2020

International Journal of Central Banking. PDF.

This paper offers a macroeconomic perspective on the “Reserves for All” (RFA) proposal to let the general public hold electronic central bank money and transact with it. I propose an equivalence result according to which a marginal substitution of outside money (e.g., RFA) for inside money (e.g., deposits) does not affect macroeconomic outcomes. I identify key conditions for equivalence and argue that these conditions likely are violated, implying that RFA would change macroeconomic outcomes. I also relate the analysis to common arguments found in discussions on RFA and point to inconsistencies and open questions.

Debt, Deficits, and MMT

One of the American Economic Association sessions in this year’s ASSA Meetings focused on “Modern Monetary Theory” (MMT) and (maybe somewhat unfairly in the same session) on last year’s presidential address by Olivier Blanchard, which suggested that persistently low interest rates on public debt render government budget constraints non-binding.

Greg Mankiw concluded in his paper that “MMT contains some kernels of truth, but its most novel policy prescriptions do not follow cogently from its premises,” in line with my own assessment.

Papers by Richard Evans, Michael Boskin, Jasmina Hasanhodzic, as well as by Johannes Brumm, Laurence Kotlikoff, and Felix Kubler argued that Blanchard’s conclusions are not robust, for various reasons.

“Reserves For All? Central Bank Digital Currency, Deposits, and their (Non)-Equivalence,” IJCB

Accepted for publication in the International Journal of Central Banking. PDF.

This paper offers a macroeconomic perspective on the “Reserves for All” (RFA) proposal to let the general public hold electronic central bank money and transact with it. I propose an equivalence result according to which a marginal substitution of outside money (e.g., RFA) for inside money (e.g., deposits) does not affect macroeconomic outcomes. I identify key conditions for equivalence and argue that these conditions likely are violated, implying that RFA would change macroeconomic outcomes. I also relate the analysis to common arguments found in discussions on RFA and point to inconsistencies and open questions.

“Reserves For All? …” on Several SSRN Top Ten Lists

My July 2018 CEPR working paper “Reserves For All? Central Bank Digital Currency, Deposits, and their (Non)-Equivalence” has made it on several SSRN top ten lists. PDF. (Personal copy.)

Abstract: I offer a macroeconomic perspective on the “Reserves for All” (RFA) proposal to let the general public use electronic central bank money. After distinguishing RFA from cryptocurrencies and relating the proposal to discussions about narrow banking and the abolition of cash I propose an equivalence result according to which a marginal substitution of outside for inside money does not affect macroeconomic outcomes. I identify key conditions on bank and government (central bank) incentives for equivalence and argue that these conditions likely are violated, implying that RFA would change macroeconomic outcomes. I also relate my analysis to common arguments in the discussion about RFA and point to inconsistencies and open questions.

“Reserves For All? Central Bank Digital Currency, Deposits, and their (Non)-Equivalence,” CEPR, 2018

CEPR Discussion Paper 13065, July 2018. PDF. (Personal copy.)

I offer a macroeconomic perspective on the “Reserves for All” (RFA) proposal to let the general public use electronic central bank money. After distinguishing RFA from cryptocurrencies and relating the proposal to discussions about narrow banking and the abolition of cash I propose an equivalence result according to which a marginal substitution of outside for inside money does not affect macroeconomic outcomes. I identify key conditions on bank and government (central bank) incentives for equivalence and argue that these conditions likely are violated, implying that RFA would change macroeconomic outcomes. I also relate my analysis to common arguments in the discussion about RFA and point to inconsistencies and open questions.

“Financial Policy,” CEPR, 2018

CEPR Discussion Paper 12755, February 2018. PDF. (Personal copy.)

This paper reviews theoretical results on financial policy. We use basic accounting identities to illustrate relations between gross assets and liabilities, net debt positions and the appropriation of (primary) budget surplus funds. We then discuss Ramsey policies, answering the question how a committed government may use financial instruments to pursue its objectives. Finally, we discuss additional roles for financial policy that arise as a consequence of political frictions, in particular lack of commitment.

Government Debt with State Contingent Coupons

On VoxEU, Myrvin Anthony, Narcissa Balta, Tom Best, Sanaa Nadeem, and Eriko Togo discuss the history of government debt with state contingent coupons and offer some lessons.

  • In the mid-19th century, the Confederate states issued cotton-linked bonds
  • In the late 1970s, Mexico issued oil-linked bonds
  • In the 2000s, Turkey issued revenue-indexed bonds
  • Since 2014, Uruguay issues nominal wage-issued bonds
  • Some other examples (figure taken from the column):
  • Obviously, confidence in data quality and thus, quality of institutions is important for the success of such issues.

State contingent securities also have been used in debt restructurings:

The first use of state contingent bonds in debt restructurings occurred in the Brady deals from 1989-97, which allowed commercial banks’ claims on debtor countries to be exchanged for tradable instruments, allowing the banks to clean up their balance sheets. Many of these instruments included ‘value recovery rights’, which envisaged additional debt payments in circumstances where the debtor country’s economic or terms of trade conditions improved substantially … Oil exporters generally linked the payments to oil prices, while other countries linked either to GDP or measures of the terms of trade. Many of the Brady instruments subsequently made significant ongoing upside payments (e.g. Bosnia and Venezuela), while in some cases sovereigns chose to repurchase the instruments as it became clear that upside payments would be triggered (e.g. Mexico, and Bulgaria in the mid-2000s).

More recently, ‘upside’ GDP-warrants have featured as part of the package of bonds issued to creditors in each of the three major restructurings of the past decade: Argentina (2005 and 2010), Greece (2012), and Ukraine (2015). In the case of Grenada (2015), the restructuring deal included instruments with both upside and downside features (Table 2).

Inflation linked bonds have been successful:

Inflation-linked bonds have a long history, dating back to a 1780 issuance by the State of Massachusetts … More recently, they emerged in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, in an environment of very high domestic inflation, and the UK became the first advanced economy to issue inflation-linked bonds in 1981. … the global stock of government inflation-linked bonds had grown to around USD 3 trillion by 2015 … Despite this recent growth, inflation-linked debt still accounts for a relatively small share of sovereign debt portfolios in most countries …

Related VoxEU column on policy implications.

Redistribution From Unexpected Deflation in the Euro Area

In the JEEA 14(4) (August 2016) Klaus Adam and Junyi Zhu argue that

unexpected price-level movements generate sizable wealth redistribution in the Euro Area (EA) … The EA as a whole is a net loser of unexpected price-level decreases, with Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain losing most in per capita terms, and Belgium and Malta being net winners. Governments are net losers of deflation, while the household (HH) sector is a net winner … HHs in Belgium, Ireland, Malta, and Germany experience the biggest per capita gains, while HHs in Finland and Spain turn out to be net losers. … relatively young middle class HHs are net losers of deflation, while older and richer HHs are winners. … wealth inequality in the EA increases with unexpected deflation, although in some countries (Austria, Germany, and Malta) inequality decreases due to the presence of relatively few young borrowing HHs. … HHs in high-inflation EA countries hold… systematically lower nominal exposures.

The table reports the estimated effects of a one-time unexpected change in the general price level by 10% (expressed either in thousand EUR per capita, or as a share of GDP); a positive sign indicates a gain from deflation.

(1000 EUR p.c.)
(1000 EUR p.c.)
(1000 EUR p.c.)
(share of GDP)
(share of GDP)
(share of GDP)
Euro Area−18.67.810.8−0.730.300.42

New Questions about Greece’s Indebtedness

On the FT’s Alphaville blog, Matthew Klein reports about discrepancies between IMF and Greek (and EU) assessments of Greek net indebtedness. The IMF appears to report lower Greek financial asset holdings than the Greek Central Bank.

Matthew Klein quotes the Greek Central Bank:

We would like to clarify that the Bank of Greece compiles its financial accounts, from which data on the general government’s net debt are derived, according to European standards. The Bank of Greece’s data are compatible with the ECB’s and Eurostat’s rules (ESA 2010) regarding financial accounts and are used as an integral part in the production of the Monetary Union’s Financial Accounts. These data can also be accessed through the ECB’s Statistical Data Warehouse at http://sdw.ecb.europa.eu/reports.do?node=1000002429.

The IMF’s series on the general government’s net debt come from its WEO database and are not necessarily based on official statistics provided by Greek Statistical authorities. We understand that they may be compiled by IMF’s desk economists (and not its Statistics Department) and we cannot vouch for their accuracy, since they are adjusted according to the programming needs of the IMF. At first glance, they appear to be based on outdated information contained in past EDP [excessive deficit procedure] documentation.

Measuring (Greek) Indebtedness

In a Vox column, Daniel Dias und Mark Wright propose various measures of the Greek, Portuguese and Irish public debt burden and emphasize the large variability of these measures.

The following figure, taken from Dias and Wright, shows the scheduled principal and interest payments of Greece, Portugal and Ireland as a percentage of 2014 GDP in the respective country. Not all public debt components are accounted for.

wright fig1 13 nov

Dias and Wright write:

[B]oth Portugal and Ireland face far larger cash flow requirements, relative to the size of their economies, than Greece for the next ten years. [A]fter this ten-year period, the required repayments on Greece’s debt will far exceed those of Portugal and Ireland, measured as a fraction of their economies. [W]hether or not we view Greece as more or less indebted than Portugal and Ireland depends on how we weigh cash flows in the near future (next ten years) versus cash flows in the far future (more than ten years).

… we can discount a country’s entire debt repayment cash flows by the interest rates embodied in their currently traded debts to obtain an estimate of the market value of a country’s debt. This assumes that the likelihood of repayment of Greece’s EFSF debt, for example, is the same as that for privately held bonds. Under these assumptions, as shown in Table 5, Greece appears to have less than half as much debt as either Portugal or Ireland. These numbers are closer to the estimates computed under the IPSAS standard, which records a debt at market value at the time of issue, and allows for the accretion of this debt if the contracted interest rate on the debt is less than the yield to maturity of the debt. This approach has the counterintuitive implication that the more likely a country is to default, the less indebted it will look.

Dias and Wright contrast a conventional face-value debt measure (the sum of the blue bars corresponding to principal repayment obligations in the figure) with more informative measures. With the latter, Greek indebtedness typically is not as high compared with the other countries as with the first measure.

See also this earlier post and this earlier post on the topic.

Greece Delays Payment of First IMF Tranche

Kerin Hope and Peter Spiegel report in the FT that Greece will delay payment of the first tranche of June payments it owes to the IMF:

Following a rarely used procedure permitted under IMF rules, the Greek government intends to bundle all the payments it owes in June totalling €1.5bn and transfer it at the end of the month.

Fed and Treasury Maturity Policies

In a recent paper, Robin Greenwood, Sam Hanson, Josh Rudolph and Larry Summers discuss the joint effect of Fed and Treasury policy on the maturity structure of government liabilities in the hands of the private sector. John Cochrane commends the paper in a blog post.

Greenwood, Hanson, Rudolph and Summers make several points. First, “monetary and fiscal policies have been pushing in opposite directions in recent years.” In spite of QE, long-term government debt held by the private sector increased, mostly due to government deficits but also because the government lengthened the maturity of its debt. Second, Fed and Treasury policies largely are uncoordinated. They argue that this is suboptimal, in particular when the Fed strongly intervenes as it did in the recent QE episodes.

The Federal Reserve has focused purely on the effects that its bond purchases were expected to have on long-term interest rates and, by extension, the economy more broadly. … it completely ignored any possible impact on government fiscal risk, even though the Federal Reserve’s profits and losses are remitted to the Treasury. Conversely, Treasury’s debt management announcements and the advice of the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee (TBAC) have focused on the assumed benefits of extending the average debt maturity from a fiscal risk perspective, and largely ignored the impact of policy changes on long-term yields. To the extent that the Federal Reserve and Treasury ever publicly mention the other institution’s mandate, it is usually in the context of avoiding the perception that one institution might be helping the other achieve an objective. Specifically, the Fed does not want to be seen as monetizing deficits, while the Treasury has been reluctant to acknowledge the Fed as anything more than a large investor.

Third, they argue that from a consolidated government policy perspective, the optimal debt maturity structure is rather short. This saves on interest payments to the private sector (on average) and reduces “liquidity transformation” by the financial sector with dangerous consequences for financial stability. They downplay the risk sharing benefits of longer-term debt and argue that short-term debt has additional advantages at the zero lower bound.

Pages 11-12 contain the following figure, among others:


“Austerity,” CEPR, 2014

CEPR Discussion Paper 10315, December 2014, with Harris Dellas. PDF. Also published as CESifo Working Paper 5146, Study Center Gerzensee Working Paper 14-07. PDF, PDF.

We shed light on the function, properties and optimal size of austerity using the standard sovereign debt model augmented to include incomplete information about credit risk. Austerity is defined as the shortfall of consumption from the level desired by a country and supported by its repayment capacity. We find that austerity serves as a tool for securing a more favorable loan package; that it is associated with over‐investment even when investment does not create collateral; and that low risk borrowers may favour more to less severe austerity. These findings imply that the amount of fresh funds obtained by a sovereign is not a reliable measure of austerity suffered; and that austerity may actually be associated with higher growth. Our analysis accommodates costly signalling for gaining credibility and also assigns a novel role to spending multipliers in the determination of optimal austerity.

The IMF Favours Fiscal Stimulus over Prudent Fiscal Policy—Or Not?

Robin Harding reports in the Financial Times about the IMF’s critical review of its own policy recommendations in 2010. The IMF’s independent evaluation office commends the fund’s lending at the time but criticises the advice to cut budget deficits. However, important IMF officials dissent. According to the FT, (current, but not then) managing director Christine Lagarde notes that “[a]s the report acknowledges, this assessment is benefiting from hindsight.” And: “Considering the information and growth forecasts available in 2010, I strongly believe that advising economies with rapidly rising debt burdens to move toward measured consolidation was the right call to make.”

Banking Union

Willem Buiter, Ebrahim Rahbari and Antonio Montilla provide a detailed assessment of the need for a Euro Area banking union and the progress towards it, in a Citi Research document. Some excerpts from the abstract:

… a single supervisor, a common resolution mechanism, including a joint recapitalisation back-up, and an effective lender of last resort – is necessary for the euro area (EA) to survive.

The CA’s [comprehensive assessment’s] conclusion will likely boost EA financial conditions in coming months. Even so, we believe the CA should have been more stringent, current backstops are still inadequate, and the CA will not eliminate divergences in financial conditions …

Remaining elements of narrow banking union are also very important — These are the Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM) and the Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM). In particular, the SRM and its bail-in provisions should materially reduce the likelihood that an EA sovereign will be dragged into insolvency through tax-payer-funded bank bailouts. Reduced moral hazard will also likely lower the likelihood and severity of future banking crises. And the combination of CA, SSM and SRM are also likely to mean that the ECB will be an effective lender of last resort for EA banks (and sovereigns).

… one key fragility remains: excessive two-way links between national sovereigns and banks. Risk-weighting of sovereign debt and concentration limits on sovereign debt holdings by banks are necessary to break these links.

A single deposit guarantee scheme is not necessary for monetary union and requires a deeper fiscal union than the minimal common backstops required to make monetary union work. It is therefore unlikely in the foreseeable future, in our view. An EA sovereign debt restructuring mechanism (SDRM) may be necessary to handle legacy sovereign debt restructurings and possible future sovereign insolvencies, but beyond the limited mutualised fiscal backstops necessary for banking union and the SDRM, deeper fiscal union is neither necessary for EA survival nor likely, for political reasons, in the foreseeable future.

The report contains many interesting figures, for example on the exposure of banks to their domestic governments; the correlation between sovereign and bank CDS spreads; lending standards; the share of bank loans in banks’ balance sheets etc.

The Financial Crisis

The Economist’s “schools briefs” on the financial crisis: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Quoting from the first part:

… it is clear the crisis had multiple causes. The most obvious is the financiers themselves—especially the irrationally exuberant Anglo-Saxon sort, who claimed to have found a way to banish risk when in fact they had simply lost track of it. Central bankers and other regulators also bear blame, for it was they who tolerated this folly. The macroeconomic backdrop was important, too. The “Great Moderation”—years of low inflation and stable growth—fostered complacency and risk-taking. A “savings glut” in Asia pushed down global interest rates. Some research also implicates European banks, which borrowed greedily in American money markets before the crisis and used the funds to buy dodgy securities. All these factors came together to foster a surge of debt in what seemed to have become a less risky world.

“Credibility For Sale,” CEPR, 2013

CEPR Discussion Paper 9562, July 2013, with Harris Dellas. PDF.

We develop a sovereign debt model with official and private creditors where default risk depends on both the level and the composition of liabilities. Higher exposure to official lenders improves incentives to repay but carries extra costs, such as reduced ex-post flexibility. The model implies that official lending to sovereigns takes place in times of debt distress; carries a favorable rate; and can displace private funding even under pari passu provisions. Moreover, in the presence of long-term debt overhang, the availability of official funds increases the probability of default on existing debt, although default does not trigger exclusion from private credit markets. These findings help shed light on joint default and debt composition choices of the type observed during the recent sovereign debt crisis in Europe.