There’s something missing from all the talk of whether or not the economic bailouts have saved the world from a depression – as opposed to a severe recession – and that’s how the massive spending by governments around the world is going to be paid for.
Perhaps it’s the “party effect.” After all, when you’re having fun at a party, nobody wants to think about the hangover that will be with you tomorrow. Not that we’re all having fun in the current recession, of course, although it could have been a lot worse. But the hangover is sure to follow.
The problem is that governments around the world have realised they are easily able to spend money they don’t have, and the recourse – if it comes at all – will come on somebody else’s watch: generally the opposition party that comes in after them. It’s nice to have your political foe lumbered with your mess…
However, the facts are clear – public debt (i.e. what governments owe) has grown at an alarming rate. Let’s look at a few examples among the world’s larger economies, showing public debt as a percentage of GDP for each country at the end of 2009 (using estimates from the CIA World Fact Book):
- USA 83.4%
- Japan 192.1%
- Germany 77.2%
- France 79.7%
- UK 68.5%
- Italy 115.2%
What these huge percentages mean is that, firstly, government is over-spending dramatically and secondly, that the percentage of government income (read: taxes!) that go just on interest payments on this debt has grown to become one of the largest single budgetary items.
In fact, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently estimated that Japan and the UK would need to reduce government spending by 13% and the US by nearly 9% just to “restore stability” over the next decade. How can they do this with such massive bills to pay? Oh, and it’s worth noting that the public debt does NOT include provisions for future expenditure on pensions, medical assistance and other state commitments – this is only the current debt!
So, what can governments do?
Reducing government spending to any meaningful degree is often seen as political suicide – especially as elections get closer.
Raising taxes is even worse…
There are only two, linked, things they can do to get the public debt as a percentage of GDP down in a reasonable time: keep interest rates artificially low to reduce interest payments and allow inflation into the system to increase GDP and their own revenue as a result.
A 10% inflation rate over five years will reduce the percentage of public debt by close to half, assuming the GDP growth matches or exceeds the inflation rate (e.g. grows in real terms). The other benefit of this is that government revenues will increase accordingly – higher sales means more sales tax/VAT, salaries rising around inflation rate will mean more tax income (the tax decreases are always lower than the extra amount paid through “bracket creep”), and so on.
My guess is governments won’t allow 10% as it’s psychologically too high, but I expect to see inflation moving quite quickly to the high single-digit range, say, 9%. We’ll need to tighten our belts and adjust our business plans accordingly – the ride for the next decade will be somewhat rough.
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- Britain’s debt set to be higher than that of Greece (telegraph.co.uk)
- Too soon to cut public spending, IMF warns (guardian.co.uk)
- Delay cuts, says leading economists (leftfootforward.org)
- What to Do About Inflation – and What Not to Do (usnews.com)
- Interest rates: The gamble in Canada’s debt payment plan (cbc.ca)