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Debts and Deficits: Martin Wolf Is Right

In general, Martin Wolf is right. Paul Krugman too. And when they explicitly degree they are superright and you can take that to the bank.

Today Martin Wolf has, as usual, very smart things to say about the deficit and the debt:

Give us fiscal austerity, but not quite yet: While the increase in the debt ratio is very large in both [Britain and the U.S.], the levels expected to be reached by 2014 are not historically exceptional, particularly for the UK.... [T]hose past record levels did not create insuperable problems. In the 19th century, both countries grew out of their debt satisfactorily, with price stability. In the second half of the 20th century, they did so again, though inflation then helped.

This is not surprising. Assume that the real rate of interest is 2.5 per cent. Then the servicing costs, in real terms, of a debt burden of 100 per cent of GDP is just 2.5 per cent of GDP – almost a bagatelle. Assume, too, that the trend rate of growth equals the real interest rate (a not unreasonable assumption). Then the requirement for debt stability is a balanced primary budget (that is, before interest payments). Again, this is hardly crippling.

So what is the problem? It is that people may lose confidence that the governments will ultimately bring deficits under control.... [C]utting peacetime deficits is hard: every pound or dollar comes with a lobby group attached. Merely promising to cut deficits lacks plausibility....

Yet even if the fiscal rope is not infinitely long, slashing deficits now would be wrong. It is extremely likely this would tip economies back into recessions, as happened in Japan in the 1990s. Furthermore, the results would also probably include expansion of quantitative and credit easing by central banks. Yet those policies, too, risk undermining credibility....

So what should be done? I agree fully with the remark by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF, in London this week that “it is still too early for a general exit” from accommodative policies.... What is needed, instead, are credible fiscal institutions and a road map for tightening that will be implemented, automatically, as and when (but only as and when) the private sector’s spending recovers.... There are losses to be shared, much of which will fall on public spending, taxation, or both. Once it becomes evident that neither of these countries can rise to the challenge, fiscal crises are inevitable. It would only be a question of when.

Britain is in slightly worse shape. But if the United States (a) sticks to PAYGO, and (b) successfully reforms health and bends the curve, it could spend as much as it wanted on fiscal stimulus without worries.