Thursday, October 23, 2014
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Austerità e consapevolezza del debito

CAMBRIDGE – Molti, se non tutti, i problemi macroeconomici più pressanti del mondo riguardano il massiccio accumulo di qualsivoglia forma di debito. In Europa, una combinazione tossica di debito pubblico, bancario ed estero nella periferia minaccia di sconvolgere l’Eurozona. Dall’altra parte dell’Atlantico, una fase di stallo tra i Democrati, il Tea Party e i Repubblicani della vecchia scuola ha prodotto un’insolita incertezza su come gli Stati Uniti porranno fine nel lungo periodo al proprio deficit pubblico pari all’8% del Pil. Il Giappone, nel frattempo, sta incorrendo in un deficit di bilancio pari al 10% del Pil, anche se una crescente schiera di neo-pensionati è passata dall’acquistare bond giapponesi al venderli.

A parte torcersi le mani per lo sconforto, cosa dovrebbero fare i governi? Da una parte c’è il rimedio semplicistico Keynesiano secondo cui i deficit pubblici non contano quando l’economia si trova in una profonda recessione; anzi, più ampi sono meglio è. All’estremo opposto ci sono gli assolutisti sul fronte “tetto del debito” i quali vorrebbero che i governi iniziassero a portare i propri conti in pareggio a partire da domani (se non da ieri). Entrambe le posizioni sono pericolosamente superficiali.

Gli assolutisti sottovalutano grossolanamente gli ingenti costi di aggiustamento di un “improvviso stop” autoimposto nel finanziamento mediante emissioni di debito. Tali costi sono esattamente il motivo per cui i Paesi in difficoltà come la Grecia devono far fronte a un massiccio spostamento sociale ed economico quando i mercati finanziari perdono la fiducia e i flussi di capitale si esauriscono all’improvviso.

Ovviamente, è logico sostenere che i governi dovrebbero presentare bilanci in pareggio proprio come tutti noi; sfortunatamente, non è così semplice. I governi devono solitamente far fronte a una miriade di spese relative a servizi di base come la difesa nazionale, i progetti per le infrastrutture, l’istruzione e la sanità, per non parlare delle pensioni. Nessun governo può sottrarsi a tali responsabilità da un giorno all’altro.

Quando si insediò il 20 gennaio del 1981, l’allora presidente americano Ronald Reagan revocò in modo retroattivo tutti contratti dei controllori di volo concessi dal governo durante i due mesi e mezzo intercorsi tra la sua elezione e il giorno dell’insediamento. Il segnale, teso a rallentare la spesa pubblica, era forte ma l’effetto immediato sul budget fu irrilevante. Ovviamente, un governo può anche colmare un buco nel bilancio aumentando le tasse, ma qualsiasi improvviso cambiamento può enfatizzare le distorsioni causate dalle imposte.

Se gli assolutisti sono ingenui, lo sono altrettanto i semplicistici Keynesiani. Questi ultimi vedono la prolungata disoccupazione post-crisi finanziaria come una giustificazione irresistibile per un’espansione fiscale più aggressiva, anche in quei Paesi già soggetti a massicci deficit, come gli Usa e il Regno Unito. Chi è in disaccordo con loro si dice favorevole all’“austerity” in un periodo in cui i tassi di interesse superbassi indicano che i governi possono contrarre debiti quasi a costo zero.

Chi pecca dunque di ingenuità? È alquanto corretto sostenere che i governi dovrebbero solo puntare a raggiungere un pareggio di bilancio nel ciclo economico, registrando dei surplus durante le fasi di boom e dei deficit quando l’attività economica è debole. Ma è errato pensare che un massiccio accumulo di debito sia un “pasto gratis”.

In una serie di documenti accademici realizzati con Carmen Reinhart – tra cui, il più recente, il lavoro condotto insieme a Vincent Reinhart (“Debt Overhangs: Past and Present”) – troviamo che livelli di debito molto elevati pari al 90% del Pil rappresentano un peso secolare che si ripercuote sulla crescita economica nel lungo termine e che spesso dura per due decenni o più. I costi cumulativi possono essere sbalorditivi. Gli episodi di debito elevato registrati dal 1800 sono durati 23 anni e sono associati a un tasso di crescita che è oltre un punto percentuale al di sotto del tasso previsto per i periodi con livelli debitori inferiori. Dunque, dopo un quarto di secolo di debito elevato, il reddito potrebbe essere il 25% in meno di quanto non sarebbe con normali tassi di crescita.

Ovviamente, esiste una corrispondenza bilaterale tra debito e crescita, ma le normali recessioni durano solo un anno e non possono spiegare un periodo di malessere di due decenni. È più probabile che il peso sulla crescita abbia origine dall’eventuale necessità del governo di aumentare le imposte, nonché da una minore spesa negli investimenti. Quindi, sì, la spesa pubblica fornisce un incentivo nel breve termine, ma scende a patti con un declino secolare nel lungo periodo.

Fa riflettere il fatto che quasi la metà dei casi di debito elevato avvenuti dal 1800 siano associati a tassi di interesse reali (depurati dell’inflazione) bassi o normali. La lenta crescita del Giappone e i bassi tassi di interesse degli ultimi due decenni sono emblematici. Inoltre, sostenere un enorme peso debitorio rischia di far lievitare in futuro i tassi di interesse globali, anche senza un tracollo in stile greco. È esattamente ciò che accade oggi, quando, dopo il massiccio e prolungato allentamento monetario messo in atto dalle principali banche centrali, molti governi si ritrovano con titoli correlati al proprio debito a scadenze eccezionalmente brevi. Di conseguenza, corrono il rischio che un’impennata dei tassi di interesse si traduca rapidamente in costi di indebitamento più elevati.

Considerato che molte delle odierne economie avanzate sfiorano livelli di debito pari al 90% del Pil – indice di un periodo di debito elevato – espandere i già ampi deficit odierni rappresenta una proposta rischiosa, e non la strategia a costo zero tanto sostenuta dai semplicistici Keynesiani. Nei prossimi mesi mi concentrerò sui problemi dell’elevato debito privato e dei debiti esteri, e ritornerò sull’argomento del perché questo sia un periodo in cui un’elevata inflazione non sarebbe così inopportuna. Dopotutto, gli elettori e i politici devono essere consapevoli degli approcci allettanti ma semplicistici agli attuali problemi di debito.

Traduzione di Simona Polverino

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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.

      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.

      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.













      Commentedjimmy rousseau

      coming down the pipeline is the economic battle to fight climate change. This will rival WWII in economic impact and it cannot be averted.

  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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