French public debt stands at 100% of GDP – My Tuesday column

This post is available in pdf format My Tuesday Column – 1 October 2018

French public debt stands at close to 100% of GDP, but is this really a cause for concern?
No – it is important not to overstate the importance of this figure. French statistics body INSEE made the news as it measured public debt at over 100% of GDP for 2017, when it included railway operator SNCF’s debt. However, this is no longer the case, with debt accounting for 99% of GDP in the second quarter of 2018.
The chart shows two phases in French public debt trends – before and after the 2008 financial crisis. The State increased its debt issues and thereby smoothed the way for macroeconomic adjustment to the crisis by spreading out the shock that hit the French economy over the longer term.
We can see that the figure then rises again after 2010, but this is not a specific feature to France. It reflects slower growth in the French economy over the longer term, and a welfare set-up that failed to change to adapt to this new trend: so soaring public debt denotes a sluggish adjustment from French institutions.
In other words, the primary role of public debt is to help spread the load at times of economic shocks, but it skyrockets when the economy is slow to adjust to new economic conditions.dettemaastrichtFrance-en.png

Is the 100% of GDP threshold a problem or not?
The figure itself is impressive and somewhat symbolic, but it is not necessarily damaging for economic momentum per se. Japanese public debt stands at 240% of GDP, yet the country has come through the financial crisis better than others judging by per-capita GDP: the country does not seem to be in danger of default.
The real problem is that we do not know just when public debt can actually become detrimental. Rogoff and Reinhart indicated in their research that public debt begins to dent growth when it moves beyond 90% of GDP, and this rule at least partly spurred on the European Commission’s austerity policy in 2011 and 2012. However, this argument does not hold water: R&R’s calculations were wrong and there is no rule on excessive public debt. Continue reading

Public debt – Private debt: the real heart of the matter is not where we think (Part 2)

In last week’s column (see here), I discussed the importance of public debt as an asset that enables wealth to be transferred to a date in the future, while restricting risk, along with its ability to effectively absorb economic shocks. I also noted that I was less concerned about public debt than private debt, particularly household debt.

The major difference between public debt and household debt is that a credible State issuer can issue debt with sometimes very long maturities, which households cannot do, so they do not have the same flexibility to adapt to shocks. Continue reading

Public debt – Private debt: the real heart of the matter is not where we think (Part 1)

Public debt is evil. This is the kind of statement we often see in the press, but it is wrong. If we are going to be concerned about excessive debt levels, we should worry more about the private sector’s debt: it is this private debt, and in particular household debt, that lay at the root of the 2007 crisis, and not public debt that had already been cut back before the crisis. Ten years later, private debt remains high, especially in Europe, and this restricts private sector players’ ability to adjust.

But before we look at private debt, let’s take a look at the issue of public debt, where we can make a number of observations: Continue reading

On the usefulness of Public Debt for Growth

Public debt is always the source of deep and intense discussions. It’s often the case in France but it’s currently also the case in the USA with republicans’ candidates. Usually, public debt concentrates all the uncertainties and concerns about the future. A too rapid increase of the public debt is often perceived as a persistent deterioration of the future.
Happily this is not that simple
Continue reading

A Discussion on Public Debt

Is public debt a constraint? Lars P. Syll gave recently an answer by quoting Abba Lerner who, in 1948, made a distinction between private debt and public debt. The first is reflected ultimately in a transfer of an actor of the economy to another to meet his commitments. In this case the debt is actually a constraint for one who is committed to repay.

For public debt indicates Abba Lerner, the question is not posed in the same way as generally residents of the country hold the debt. It’s a debt a country has on itself and it shouldn’t be an issue. Nevertheless there is the question of the intertemporal allocation of resources. A general argument is that a higher public debt could lead to impoverishment of children and grandchildren. This argument is swept by Lerner indicating interests and repayments of the debt will be done in the future to children and grandchildren. This is what has long been observed and still is in Japan, where public debt is majority owned by residents. The level of public debt is circa 240% of GDP and this doesn’t provoke a crisis.

Beyond Japan, the argument developed by the Moldavian-born economist is not always relevant. Continue reading