Friday, April 25, 2014
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债务问题要紧吗?

伦敦—如今,欧洲上空飘荡着债务的幽灵。这个幽灵令所有欧洲领导人心惊胆寒。为了把它赶走,他们正在把各自的经济推向磨难。

但这一招似乎并不显灵。他们的经济仍然蹒跚,而债务并没有停止增长。评级机构标准普尔刚刚下调了欧元区九国主权债务评级,法国赫然在列。英国很可能将步其后尘。

如果你还没有被愚昧蒙蔽了双眼,那么这次大面积降级的原因就很容易看清。如果你有意要让GDP下降,那么你的债务-GDP必定会随之上升。削减债务,除了违约之外,唯一的办法就是让经济增长起来。

担心债务乃是人类本能;因此,消灭债务的政策目标在普通公民眼中断然是不会错的。众所周知,财务债务的意思是欠钱,通常是借来的钱。如果你对到时候无法偿还所欠的钱感到不确定,那么你的债务就会让你产生焦虑。

这种焦虑已经转移到了国民债务层面,也就是政府欠其债权人的债务。人们会问,政府将如何偿还它们所欠下的数千亿美元债务?正如英国首相卡梅伦所言:“政府债务和信用卡债务是一样,迟早要还的。”

接下来出现的是,为了偿还(或至少减少)国民债务,政府必须消除其预算赤字,因为支出超过收入会继续增加国民债务。事实上,如果政府行动不力,那么国民债务将变得——用今天的行话讲——“不可持续”。

在这里,仍然可以用家庭债务来类比。我的逝世并不会让我的债务消失,稍有头脑的公民都知道这一点。我的债权人将拥有对我的财产——即我准备遗留给子孙后代的所有东西——的第一索偿权。类似地,政府长期未能偿还的债务也将成为子孙后代的负担:我可以从政府的铺张浪费中获得好处,这得由我的子孙后代买单。

这就是为什么削减债务成为大多数政府财政政策的核心。一个具有“可信”的“财政整合”计划的政府想必不太会对其债务违约,或把它留给未来去偿还。人们认为,这能让政府以更低的成本借到钱,反过来拉低私人借款人的利率,从而能够提振经济活动。于是,财政整合就成了经济复苏的不二法门。

这便是如今大多数发达国家的指导方针,但其中至少有五大漏洞,而由于财政整合说听起来无懈可击,因此这五大漏洞很少有人注意到。

首先,政府不同于个人,其债务并不是必须“偿还”的。拥有本国中央银行的政府可以通过印刷本国货币借给自己。这一点对欧元区国家是不成立的。但这些国家的政府也不是必须“偿还”其债务的。如果(外国)债权人给它们施加太多的压力,它们可以选择违约。违约绝不是好事。但违约之后的日子并不会比不违约差。

其次,刻意削减赤字并不是政府平衡预算的最佳方式。在经济萧条时削减赤字绝非复苏之路,反之,恰恰是收缩之路,因为这意味着连同政府收入所依赖的国民收入一起削减了。这会让赤字削减变得更困难而不是更容易。英国政府于2010年6月宣布赤字削减计划,但现在,它所必须借入的资金规模比计划中多了1120亿英镑。

第三,国民债务并不是子孙后代的净负担。尽管这会提高未来税收负担,但这一负担会从纳税人手中转移到债权人那里。这可能会造成令人不快的分配后果。现在试图削减国民债务将给子孙后代造成净负担:收入会马上出现下降,利润会缩水,退休基金规模会不足,投资项目会被取消或中止,住房、医院、学校也将无法建设。未来政府的境况会因此更加糟糕,因为它们失去了本可以留在手中的资产。

第四,国民债务规模和政府融资成本之间并没有多少联系。日本、美国、英国和德国的国民债务偿还成本一样低,尽管它们的债务水平和财政政策相差极大。

最后,政府借债的低成本并不会自动拉低私人部门的资本成本。毕竟,公司借款人不可能以像美国国债那样的“无风险”收益率借钱,有证据表明,货币扩张可以拉低政府债务的利率,但很难影响银行向公司和家庭发放的新贷款的利率。事实上,这里的因果关系正好相反:英国和其他地区的政府利率之所以如此之低,是因为私人部门贷款利率太高了。

马克思著名的《共产党宣言中》中说道,“共产主义的幽灵”游荡在欧洲上空,而如今,“就欧洲的所有势力已经结成了一个神圣同盟,驱逐”国民债务的幽灵。但意在清除债务的政客们应该记住另一个著名的幽灵——革命的幽灵。

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  1. Commentedjan andreassen

    You forget the practical route. Europe has always beeen about lofty ideals followed by a d-mark revaluation. Germany is strong and has gotten that way through the trials of history. No this is not a PIGS problem, but an issue for france,netherlands and sweden. No chance against der mittelstand.

  2. CommentedEnrique Woll Battistini

    It does matter who spends the money and on what, whether government or individuals, friends or foes, just as much as it matters that debt be repaid no matter whose it is or to whom it is owed; breaking the faith in government financial commitments sows the seeds of economic failure, social injustice, political disorder, and dissolves the trust on which society and the future iare built. That is why default by government is crassly immoral, much more so than impoverishment through uncontrolled inflation, by central banks, and must never allowed to become state policy.

  3. CommentedShane Beck

    Does national debt matter? Only in the current international economic, political and legal framework where the international bondholders expect to get their dividend ahead of any other national interest. For example, if the United States decided to default upon their national debt for some insane reason, there would be very little that international investors could do other than the obvious actions of seizing overseas US assets and withholding future credit. This has happened in the past in revolutionary situations such as Revolutionary Era France and the Bolshevik revolution. In a climate where polities "break the rules", the rules no longer apply. Not saying that it will happen in this case in either US or Europe but simply noting that it has happened in the past with debt being one of the causes of such revolutionary conditions and repudiation of such debt being one of the outcomes

  4. CommentedGordon Roberts

    You throw up one linear graph and proclaim that MMT is true (http://pshakkottai.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/another-proof-of-mmt-4). with this you sound like you have left no avenue of thought unexplored. Well how about this avenue Mr Arrogant: how about wealth distribution?? Did you ever think that the national debt payments going to people who already have money on being paid at least partially by the taxes of those who scrap by day to day and have no surplus money to benefit from the money their government pays in debt maintenance? Rather than getting the complete government services they deserve they are financing the growth of wealth of those who are already better off than they are and they have no choice about it. And as the debt burden gets worse and the population ages with more debt to be paid by fewer and fewer (portportionally) working younger people, fewer and fewer government services will be provided for the increasing taxes paid.

    I merely have a bachelor of mathematics,.. but even i know that you have no idea what the word 'proof' means. You speak as one who has knowledge, yet you only misleads others. Please be silent.

  5. CommentedMATTHEW M

    Most of the comments herein are more worthy than the article. Particularly, debt just used to finance current non investment consumption is problematic. If debt is indeed incurred to finance investment, infrastructure, emerging technologies and related job training etc then it ultimately has a return or stimulative effect on growth, which correspondingly reduces the debt position. The problem is in most "advanced" societies, they have lost the sense of what to invest in. And the entanglement with too powerful of bankers and Wall Street is blinding them to see this reality.

  6. CommentedNick Marshall

    This is getting the cart before the horse. Who are these future generations and what is their population? It is just too glib to assume that we know the size and wherewithal of any future generation to assume anything about the wealth or output in the future. Economic forecasts are never more than a projection of the present trend i.e.they tell you what has happened but nothing about the future.
    Adding further debt now (money creation from thin air) is not actually doing anything for the economy because the multiplier effect is not happening. It is not happening because banks are reluctant to lend and people are reluctant to borrow. Economists regard this as irrational because they look at the world in terms of numbers. Real people have limited lifespans and families to take care of. People are far more sensible than the so called experts. They will take their lumps now and probably revolt later to take their revenge on those who allowed such economic distortions to happen. The final sentence "Future generations will be worse off, having been deprived of assets that they might otherwise have had." is about as stupid an idea as I can imagine. Essentially, it is saying that experts like Robert Skidelsky know the future. There was hardly an economist alive who predicted the downturn from late October 2007. Common sense tells me that in the end, despite government/central bank manipulations, there will be defaults on an unprecedented scale. In such a deflationary period only those who have paid off all debt will be in a position to flourish - hence the common sense of the common people to reject taking on more debt.

  7. CommentedNick Marshall

    The global economy has been falsely supercharged over the last decade or two by rampant credit/money creation. In the mid sixties every dollar created added a dollar to GDP but today it takes five or more times as many to add each dollar of improvement. The reason is pretty simple - each new dollar has less purchasing power than the previous one. Economists and those highly paid people who run corporations may not notice this but ordinary people do. The whole system needs re-calibrating and the only way to do that is by honest accounting which will, of course, result in a very high level of default. Default is not bad, it is what happens in a well functioning system, because it clears out the financial arteries and passes assets from debt laden weak hands to strong hands which can nurture and grow the asset. The nineteenth century saw several crashes and bank runs of short duration. None were a risk to the system as a whole because no bank or business was "too big to fail". That is not the situation now, which is all the more reason to let those businesses fail which are supposedly crucial to the system. If they are so crucial, how come they got us into this global mess? The longer it goes on with the taxpayer's burden being increased with bailouts and quantitive easing, the greater and more damaging the eventual crash. I do not pretend that it will be bloody awful for a while but better to take our lumps now than later.
    The idea that "governments, unlike private individuals, do not have to "repay" their debts" is so stupid and dishonest that it could only be uttered by an economist. It is an exercise in semantics. It may be true that the government, per se, can avoid its obligations by printing but that is only to pass on the burden of the obligation to the citizens of that country and their descendants by way of falling purchasing power and utterley distorted market signals. The only true thing that can be said is that those in government, the zombies who are supposed to represent the interests of the people, now only serve their own ends. There will, no doubt, be a period of reckoning.

    1. Commentedparthasarathy Shakkottai

      The household net worth of USA is $58.5 Trillion. The national debt is $14 T. GDP is about the same, $14T/yr.The ratio of GDP/yr to govt spending/yr has been about 5 over the years. The same ratio holds for household net worth to national debt.
      "The currency issuer is the monopoly producer of money and, just as every asset has a liability, also results in government liabilities. The issuer's liabilities, or "debt", is a digital account of the currency supply used by the currency users. To a fiat currency issuer, the currency supply is a digital accounting tool, not an asset in and of itself. The currency supply is simply the bookkeeping records corresponding to all the currency users’ savings in banknotes, deposits, and treasuries.
      Money functions as both a store of value and a medium of exchange. When users acquire dollars they can spend them for items in the marketplace or choose to "save" them as banknotes, deposits, and treasuries.
      The more users choose to save the more "debt" the issuer takes on. A common misconception is that currency issuers "borrow" money. The issuer does not borrow because it is the monopoly producer of the currency - the money that currency users spend or save. This is simply double entry accounting.
      Savings by currency users, domestic or foreign, is a straightforward concept on an individual level but becomes counter intuitive on a macro level." from
      http://dollarmonopoly.blogspot.com/p/issuer-user-paradigm.html”

  8. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    The price mark-up over unit labor cost, a measure of business power, has been rising sharply in recent times (Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts; Bureau of Labor Statistics, Productivity and Costs; CEA calculations); I do not know if even a fraction of this could be invested to increase the marginal productivity of labor and its proceeds shared in a proportion that could lead to consumption increment.

    We all know that the marginal propensity to consume is higher at the base and that is where the debt burden pinches severely.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  9. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    The distribution of the proceeds of national debt matters a lot. Debt used to finance infrastructure and social investment in education and research (1) moves today's economy towards full employment, (2) increases the future income of the country, and (3) increases the long-run marginal productivity of labor, thus raising real wages over time.

    In contrast, debt used to finance current consumption only achieves the first of the above three objectives: current employment is improved.

    So public debt that builds public assets is actually a prerequisite of achieving advanced economic status. Private sector economics, no matter how "free," will not take you there.

    Most of the advanced economies are under-investing in public assets and productivity-building infrastructure. So their productivity of labor is stagnating at a time when emerging market economies, incorporating the latest technology, and rapidly improving their productivity.

    So the emerging countries start to "eat the lunches" of the advanced economies.

    And politicians do not want to give up on public consumption regardless of impact on long-term income. So we get slower growth and higher unemployment and a sense of a stagnating future.

  10. CommentedDuncan Hume

    Of course debt matters! The casual approach to debt evidenced in this article is exactly why we have a problem. Any entity that borrows money to meet its ongoing expenses is creating an untenable situation. We now have many countries that are meeting day to day expenses using borrowed money. It may be the easiest path for those elected to positions of responsibility but it is not responsible governance. Debt works when it is being used for investment with a reasonable expectation of a return but that is not what has been happening, and assuming that the problem is going to be fixed by devaluing the currency is a joke, how is that going to affect your constituents? and eventually the lenders will wake up and then interest rates will be set to match your cavalier attitude.

    1. Commentedparthasarathy Shakkottai

      This applies to a monetarily sovereign economy, say USA. Government creates money and the economy uses it. http://pshakkottai.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/how-the-economy-works-a-diagram/
      a) Federal Deficits – Net Imports = Net Private Savings is strictly true. Govt “debt” is the sum of all deficits and appears on one side of the equation whereas the private sector “debt” means negative savings. Govt deficit is the source of money.
      Income taxes play a minor role in macroeconomics. It has a role in income inequality and inflation control. Govt "debt" is the same as private wealth. These are in the form of the govt bonds held by citizens, grandmothers, pension funds and so on. The interest also flows into the private sector. Two key equations in economics which apply to any system of govt which creates its own money:
      A numerical proof of (a) is shown in figure 4 of http://pragcap.com/resources/understanding-modern-monetary-system
      b) Gross Domestic Product = Federal Spending + Private Investment + Private Consumption + Net exports.
      The GDP is equal to approximately 5 times govt spending.
      Actual data is in
      http://pshakkottai.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/
      Deficits have been quite common in the US economy.
      http://www.davemanuel.com/charts2/surpluses_and_deficits_1940-2011.html

  11. CommentedDerrick Wilkinson

    If he thinks the printing press can be used to repay debt he has clearly not understood the fact that money is not merely a means of exchange but also - and equally important - it is a store of value. Printing money is one of the quickest ways of devaluing a currency - by undermining the confidence of savers and investors in that government

  12. CommentedDerrick Wilkinson

    So debt is not a burden on future generations and does not need to be repaid. Perhaps then the government could just assume all private debts as well, since the resulting higher government debts are neither a burden nor need repayment. Arrant nonsense!!!

    1. CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

      Excellent point. Also, the future taxpayers (now children) don't get ANYTHING in adulthood in return for their tax dollars servicing inherited debt (because these govt goods/services were consumed by their forbears). So SOMETHING has indeed been transferred from old to young. Mr. Skidelsky apparently reads Krugman--both possess an utter absence of morality on this matter (the very definition of rationalization).

  13. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Debt to GDP ratio is passe, what now counts is the ratio of government debt to government revenue, which has been mounting and this is a clear indicator that we are drawing from the future without a credible plan on how to bring some semblance of balance. Austerity actually is a double whammy, but if it is directed towards bringing a balance in those areas where restructuring is necessary, it is actually a step in the right direction. Procyon Mukherjee

    1. Commentedparthasarathy Shakkottai

      Myths about debt/GDP still persist. Please see
      http://rodgermmitchell.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/federal-debtgdp-a-useless-ratio/
      and
      http://www.forbes.com/2011/03/18/deficit-cut-danger-budget-jobs-leadership-managing-employment.html

  14. CommentedLuke Ho-Hyung Lee

    Could I suggest you see this letter? "An Open Letter to the Economic Leaders of the West -- especially the United States" http://goo.gl/MfLe8

    I wrote this letter about a year ago on December 21, 2010, but I think it is still effective.

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