Low growth leads to high debt, not the other way round

Charts of the day.

Two big holes have been left by the revelation of serious flaws in the Reinhart-Rogoff paper on austerity. The first is that the concept of a criticality at high levels of debt has been demolished. The original paper showed a massive drop in growth rates for countries with debt to GDP ratios over 90 per cent; that simply does not hold anymore. Insofar as the paper shows any negative association, it is linear – the step from 60 to 70 per cent is no more dangerous than the step from 85 to 95 per cent.

But there's also now an absence of notable economists claiming that high debt ratios cause low growth. In Reinhart and Rogoff's initial response to Herndon, Ash, and Pollin's paper, the authors point out that "we are very careful in all our papers to speak of 'association' and not 'causality'". That's true, but they have also not been shy about endorsing suggestions that there is an element of causality involved – and their paper has been widely misinterpreted as showing as such.

However, Arindrajit Dube presents pretty compelling evidence that the causality lies in the direction everyone but the austerians expected it to: slow growth causes high debt to GDP ratios, not the other way round. It's as simple as two charts:

 

The first image shows the correlation between the debt to GDP ratio in any given year, and the growth in the three years after it. Really low debt comes before high growth rates – but for nearly every other level of debt, the average growth in the next three years is 3 per cent.

Looking backwards, though presents a very different picture. There's strong linear relationship between low growth in the past and high debt-to-GDP ratios now.

And that's not surprising! As Dube writes:

One reason is just algebraic. The ratio has a numerator (debt) and denominator (GDP): any fall in GDP will mechanically boost the ratio. Even if GDP growth doesn’t become negative, continuous growth in debt coupled with a GDP growth slowdown will also lead to a rise in the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Besides, there is also a less mechanical story. A recession leads to increased spending through automatic stabilizers such as unemployment insurance. And governments usually finance these using greater borrowing, as undergraduate macro-economics textbooks tell us governments should do. This is what happened in the U.S. during the past recession.

The easiest way to cut the debt – in the only measure which matters, which is it in relation to the size of the economy – is to increase growth, at least back to the long-term trend. Going at it from the opposite direction, and cutting the debt in the hope it will bring growth back, is a recipe for disaster.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR