Thursday, April 24, 2014
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紧缩和债务的现实

美国剑桥—当今世界许多(如果不是所有的话)最重要的宏观经济问题都与各种各样的债务大规模积压有关。在欧洲,外围国的公共债务、银行债务和对外债务相互交错,已经威胁到了欧元区的生存。在大西洋对岸,民主党、茶党和老派共和党之间的僵局不禁让人疑惑:从长期看,美国应该怎样消除占GDP 8%政府预算?日本的预算赤字相当于GDP的10%,即便不断增加的退休群体从日本国债的买入者转变为卖出者。

除了焦躁不安之外,政府应该怎样做?一个极端是简单照搬凯恩斯主义疗法,认为在经济陷入深度衰退时,政府赤字无关紧要,甚至可以说是越大越好。另一个极端是债务上限绝对论,认为政府应该从明天(既然往者不可追)就开始平衡预算。这两种观点都太过轻率。

债务上限绝对论者大大低估了自我发生的债务融资“骤停”所造成的巨大调整成本。这类调整成本正是希腊等缺钱国在金融市场失去信心、资本流突然告竭时出现重大社会和经济混乱的原因。

当然,你可以站着说话不腰疼地认为政府应该像我们大家那样平衡它们的预算;不幸的是,事情并非那么简单。一般来说,政府都做出了为数据大的支出承诺,通常与国防、基础设施项目、教育和卫生(更不用说退休者了)等基本服务有关。没有哪个政府可以一觉醒来拍拍屁股甩掉这些责任包袱。

1981年1月20日,罗纳德·里根就任美国总统。上任后,里根逆势而动,废除了在他当选和上任之间两个半月时间里政府所增加的公共服务职位。这表明他削减政府支出的坚定决心,但由此造成的即期预算效应却是负面的。当然,政府可以通过增税来缩小预算差额,但任何税法的骤变都会放大扭曲。

如果说债务上限绝对论者有些幼稚,那么凯恩斯主义者同样头脑简单。他们认为,居高不下的后金融危机时期失业率足以表明应该采取更为激进的财政扩张,就算美国和英国这样已经存在巨额赤字的国家也是如此。任何意见相左者都被他们视为是在利率极低因而政府几乎可以无成本借贷的情况下鼓吹“紧缩”。

但到底是谁幼稚?政府应该只追求在整个经济周期内实现预算平衡,在繁荣期积累盈余,在经济活动疲软期增加赤字,这当然是正确的。但认为巨额债务积累是免费午餐就大错特错了。

在与卡门·莱因哈特(Carmen Reinhart)合作的一系列学术论文中——包括最近的与文森特·莱因哈特(Vincent Reinhart)的工作《债务积压:过去和现在》(Debt Overhangs: Past and Present)——我们发现,达到GDP的90%的高债务水平是在长期拖累经济增长的重要因素,其效果通常会持续二十年以上。累计成本可能达到惊人的程度。自1800年以来,高债务时期平均会维持23年,且通常伴随增长率比低债务时期低1个百分点以上的现象。也就是说,在经历了四分之一的高债务时期后,收入会比正常增长率情形低25%。

当然,债务和增长之间的反馈是双向的,但常规衰退只维持1年时间,无法解释长达二十年的萎靡。对增长的拖累更有可能来自政府最终需要增税以及投资支出的下降。因此,诚然政府支出可以提供短期刺激,但需要在它和长期非周期性衰退之间做出权衡。

注意,自1800年以来,几乎一半的高债务时期伴随着低或正常水平的真实(经通胀调整)利率,这一点令人警醒。日本在过去二十年中的低增长和低利率就是明证。此外,即使希腊是的崩溃不发生,背负沉重的债务包袱也要承受全球利率在未来有所升高的风险。这一点在今天尤其适用——在主要央行持续大规模“量化宽松”后,许多国家的国债期限结构变得极短。因此,它们面临着利率升高将相对较快地反映为借贷成本升高的风险。

如今,许多发达国家都达到或在接近90%GDP的债务水平,很显然已经步入了高债务时期,将已然规模很大的赤字进一步扩张到了危险水平,头脑简单的凯恩斯主义者所鼓吹的无成本战略已经站不住脚了。在未来几个月中,我将关注与高私人债务和对外债务有关的问题,也将回归为何这一回通胀高企不再是杞人忧天这一主题。总而言之,选民和政客必须当心,不要落入当今债务问题存在简单解决之道这一观点的陷阱。

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  1. CommentedRobert Wolff

    We must precisely distinguish between debt due to debt leveraging by productive businesses and consumer debt. The cause of consumer debt is that wages are too low to buy the results of production, creating a situation in which [excess] profits beyond what businesses reinvest to increase production (which creates growth) are necessarily lent to consumers to so they may buy the total results of production.

    Such consumer loans, though they are funded by what businesses call profits, are really nothing more than funds held back from wages then loaned to consumers to buy excess production to maintain the condition wherein supply equals demand.

    The huge accumulation of consumer debt means that excess profits have been accumulating in large amounts, and been lent to consumers over a very long time to buy excess production beyond what their wages can afford.

    Keynesian redistribution can solve this problem after the fact, but we can now see the political crisis it creates. The spats over redistribution of wealth have now created a political crisis in Europe and America.

    Better yet would that the watchman had cried out long before the accumulation of excess profits lent out as consumer debt got so large that we incur a political crisis necessating huge redistributions of wealth that make Keynesian policies appear radical.

    A stitch in time saves nine.

    1. CommentedRobert Wolff

      Debt due to debt leveraging is performed to increase corporate profits at the expense of lowering the profit margin (ROI). The macro effect if all corporations do this is that it is the gross reduction in profit margin.

      The short term effect of debt leveraging is that it increases profits for those that get in on the beginning of the trend but the long term effect is that it drives up the risk to reward ratio of investment.

      Eventually, the risk of investment drives up the cost of capital, which drives down ROI that is already marginal, and the capitalist system collapses.

  2. CommentedRalph Musgrave

    Rogoff is totally clueless. First, he doesn’t get the point (made by Keynes and Milton Friedman) that it is totally unnecessary to run into debt in order to bring stimulus. That is, a deficit can accumulate as monetary base instead of debt if need be.

    Next, he claims that “governments should aim only to balance their budgets over the business cycle..” Complete nonsense: they never have done. Why doesn’t he look at the FACTS?

    I could go on.

    I don’t blame those Harvard economics students for walking out of their lectures. They should have walked out of Harvard university altogether.

    1. Commentedpeter fairley

      Rogoff only errs on Keynes in not being more emphatic that govt's have failed to heed Keynes' warning 'that budget deficits in boom times worsens the business cycle'.
      I respect Rogoff but wish he would answer Shiller at Yale in his critique of the 90% debt to GDP measure. Professors should not get paid just to talk to themselves and us amateurs.

  3. CommentedMichel Brouwers

    Thanks for this interesting article.

    I wonder whether the following...

    "The average high-debt episodes since 1800 last 23 years and are associated with a growth rate more than one percentage point below the rate typical for periods of lower debt levels."

    ... must also hold true in the opposite direction, i.e. how much extra growth was created due to leveraging? And what would be the net effect of both over time?

  4. CommentedMike Muller

    What? You start the paragraph saying that high debt may not be related to high interest rates and then you go on to say beware of the risk of high interest rates! And you connect this contradiction with "Moreover" as if the negation of the former followed from the former. Please remain sober. :-)

  5. CommentedThomas Lesinski

    See Matt Yglesias' critique of this interpretation of the historical evidence:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/06/02/kenneth_rogoff_s_confused_correlation_mongering.html

    Is it that excessive debt weighs on growth, or is it that governments hit by recessions, unable or unwilling to stimulate their economy cannot grow their tax base enough to pay down their debts ?

  6. CommentedJan Smith

    I've learned a great deal from Rogoff and Reinhardt, and from Professor Rogoff's many fine columns. And yet I am persuaded this time really is different.

    For the past 30 years, in spite of fundamental innovation in a wide range of capital and consumer goods, total American debt--private and public--has been accelerating while income growth has barely kept up with the previous century's average.

    That 30-year-old road is now closed.

    If there is anything in the technological pipeline that might replace the microelectronic revolution, no one can see it.

    But the enormous and prolonged Malthusian shock, starting in 1979, precipitated by the fall of communism but rooted in the demographic transition, still is working its way through the world economy. Old Malthus is coming home, and neither liquidity nor public debt can stop him.

    So within a few years, it will be evident even to the immortal Dr Pangloss that the USA must choose between becoming another Germany or another Greece. That is to say, either the Americans will tighten their own belt or others will do it for them.

    How tight, and for how long? Please, don't even ask.













  7. CommentedJoel Rosenblum

    I'm not an economist and I haven't read Prof. Rogoff's book so prudence should dictate that I keep my mouth shut, BUT... :-)
    It seems to me that in this essay he seems to aggregate the economic effects of all debt "overhangs" without regard to the underlying causes. As if a country doesn't balance it's spending over the business cycle (i.e. it spends too much and refuses to tax itself) is morally or economically equivalent to one which is bailing itself out of a financial crisis.
    He cites Japan as the examplar, as if Japan had merely overly stimulated in an inventory-cycle recession. But my recollection is that Japan had the mother of all financial crises. Would their GDP really be 25% higher now had the government let the financial system collapse?
    Is a financial crisis different from a normal business-cycle recession? Is a tornado qualitatively the same as a thunderstorm, just larger?

  8. CommentedHarlan Green

    There is a way out of the debt mess...see my Huff Post column: "What Happened to the Bush Tax Cuts?"...http://www.huffingtonpost.com/harlan-green/bush-tax-cuts_b_1567695.html?utm_source=Alert-blogger&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Email%2BNotifications

  9. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    First, my view is that the US is already half way to where it should go. My look at the CBO 10-year projection is that the debt-GDP ratio starts to decline by 2014 if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to lapse and legislated health care savings are actually realized through policy implementation.

    Second, state and local government spending is down and so overall total government spending in the US is down. Now that it is lean, possibly government should be made meaner?

    Third, all the job growth in the Obama era has been private sector job growth. This is economically tested, economically useful job growth. The overall job foundation of the US is becoming more solid, more productive.

    Fourth, the missing piece is public infrastructure spending. When government borrows a dollar to build a dollar of public assets, the impact is quite different than spending on public consumption. A dollar of public assets will generate increased income in the future (and if doesn't it hasn't met the definition of "asset"). So a dollar of debt to build a dollar of assets is not such a scary thing.

    The US president who puts the pieces together is going to do quite well on the upside.

  10. CommentedDave Thomas

    Why not means test social security and medicare immediately.
    Why not increase the co-pays for Medicare immediately.
    Why not cut marginal tax rates across the board for everyone so that the economy will expand and people will be working at jobs and paying taxes instead of not working and adding to the annual deficit by relying on government programs?

  11. CommentedRobert Guy Danon




    Authorities have three choices:

    1- Go through many years of austerity and or growth enhancing policies to reduce both deficits and debt to sustainable levels a very long process of perseverence.

    2-Central banks abandon their narrow mindedness and allow inflationary EXPECTATIONS (it is this variable expectations, that is important to trigger demand side incentives)

    3-Even more importantly design a process to redistribute wealth to households by increasing motgage debt forgiveness and thus wealth, allowing for increased final demand as net worth and prosperity values rise.

    In summary, it is a function of transfering wealth from creditors to debtors. If this process is not accelerated then it will be imposed by market forces and or political and ultimately social repercussions. This effectively, is what is currently happening in Greece.

    It goes without saying that a combination of all is also another desirable mix.

  12. CommentedMike Jake

    Who are these "simplistic Keynesians", Kenneth? Name some names so we can see if their positions actually match this caricature.

    Or are you just trying to position yourself in the sensible center?

  13. Commentedsrinivasan gopalan

    Prof.Rogoff hits the nail on the head when he succinctly put it that 'it is wrong to think that massive accumulation of debt is a free lunch'. Living on borrowed money is the bane of modern society--whether it is by individual or by sovereign governments, though the latter cannot escape its hold as its agenda is wider and ineluctable. Leaving aside hard economics that is readily used by politicians swearing faith either in Keynesian pump-priming or in fiscal fundamentalism, the fact remains that borrowing binges by governments without thought to the long-term repercussions would eventually make the zero-interest western countries to live with exorbitant ones if they do not in the meanwhile mend their ways and sacrifice short-term enjoyment to long-lasting happiness in the future. But the politicians without any understanding of the past or any clue to the future would not be the ideal choice to weather the crisis without astute advice from economists of repute. Debt by any way is a surefire road to perdition and it is wiser to contract debt that could be discharged in one's life-time .This is applicable to nations as it is to individuals. Any one interested in the common good of humanity would definitely be with the learned Prof.Rogooff in decrying debt with its manifest wart and all. Emerging economies like India should benefit by salutary counsel from evolved economists who speak for the summum bonum of all and not to this or that country.
    G.Srinivasan

  14. CommentedHamid Rizvi

    Alright, so in this edition of your admonitions and over analysis has told us nothing except what we should not do. I do appreciate the fact that you conclude by saying there is more to come. I, await with bated breath in the hope you might then tell us what we indeed should be doing.

  15. CommentedDavid Doney

    We can walk and chew gum at the same time, with short-term stimulus, long-term austerity, structural reform, and mortgage write-downs. Some examples:

    Short-term stimulus: Infrastructure, forgive the debts of doctors and nurses past and future that stay in the profession for 10 years, write-down mortgage debts for those significantly underwater. Payroll tax cuts.

    Long-term austerity: Raise the retirement age, reduce cost of living adjustments in pension programs, as progressively as possible. Phase out the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy first and everyone else over 5 years. Raise the healthcare premiums for the obese.

    Structural reform: Prohibit offshoring to low-wage countries, to offset our $650 billion goods trade deficit that has killed our jobs engine. Take high school dropouts and draft them into a military-style high school completion program. Everybody graduates.

    All of the above, not "this or that" which is a false choice.

    We are in this mess due to too much debt; we have too much private debt due to offshoring and a dead jobs engine; we have too much public debt because we have too much private debt.

    Find the causes...fix the problems.

  16. Portrait of Michael Heller

    CommentedMichael Heller

    Kenneth Rogoff:

    I suppose the signal Ronald Reagan sent out in 1981 is similar to the one now advocated by people who favour backloading commitments to reduce government spending. Debt is the root problem. I’m persuaded by your arguments which fairly represent the moderate centre ground today. Corrective strategy can begin with acceptance of the need for backloading and also inflation, and with rejection of the simplistic extremes you have outlined.

    It seems, however, that the middle ground is actually institutional in fundamental ways, and this dimension gets insufficient attention. Institutional reform is not a luxury to be postponed until better economic times. Nor, in Europe, does it necessarily require a utopian level of political union. Governments have urgently to make formal institutional commitments without U-turns: introducing the permanent interventions rather than the temporary interventions advocated by simplistic Keynesians; simple decisive legislative changes; and predictive financial market regulation in one or another form, so that markets will believe governments and so that pressured incentives for states to reform are maintained.

    The logjam in Europe is that Germany will understandably not consider temporary interventions or eurobonds and assorted rescue measures that could cost it dearly until there has been the needed European treaty change and until individual countries have used the short window of opportunity to reform their national institutional rules and shown reasonably credible intent regarding labour laws, privatization, and fiscal and monetary rules. A humane and balanced approach to writing down debt can start as soon as the rules are agreed on. They are on the table already. Certain countries and highly vocal and articulate leftwing economists are recklessly blocking sensible agreement and implicitly giving encouragement to debtor countries to “call the bluff” of creditor countries.

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