BRUSSELS – The most visible symptom of the crisis in the eurozone has been the high and variable risk premiums that its peripheral countries now must pay on their public debt. Moreover, an influential paper by the American economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff suggests that economic growth falls sharply when a country’s public debt rises above 90% of GDP. So the policy prescription for solving the crisis seems simple: austerity. Fiscal deficits must be cut to reduce debt levels.
But the debate about austerity and the cost of high public-debt levels misses a key point: Public debt owed to foreigners is different from debt owed to residents. Foreigners cannot vote for the higher taxes or lower expenditure needed to service the debt. Moreover, in the case of domestic debt, a higher interest rate or risk premium merely leads to more redistribution within the country (from taxpayers to bondholders). By contrast, in the case of debt owed to foreigners, higher interest rates lead to a welfare loss for the country as a whole, because the government must transfer resources abroad, which usually requires a combination of exchange-rate depreciation and a reduction in domestic expenditure.
This distinction between foreign and domestic debt is particularly important in the context of the euro crisis, because eurozone countries cannot devalue to increase exports if this is required to service foreign debt. And the evidence confirms that the euro crisis is not really about sovereign debt, but about foreign debt.
Indeed, only those countries that were running large current-account deficits before the crisis were affected by it. The case of Belgium is particularly instructive, because the risk premium on Belgian sovereign debt has remained modest throughout most of the euro crisis, although the country’s debt/GDP ratio is above the eurozone average, at around 100%, and it went without a government for more than a year.
An even starker example of the crucial difference between foreign and domestic debt is provided by Japan, which has by far the highest debt/GDP ratio among OECD countries. So far, the country has not experienced a debt crisis, and interest rates remain exceptionally low, at around 1%. The reason is obvious: Japan has run sizeable current-account surpluses for decades, giving it more than sufficient domestic savings to absorb all of its public debt at home.
What does this imply for Europe’s austerity debate? If foreign debt matters more than public debt, the key variable requiring adjustment is the external deficit, not the fiscal deficit. A country that has a balanced current account does not need any additional foreign capital. That is why risk premiums are continuing to fall in the eurozone, despite high political uncertainty in Italy and continuing large fiscal deficits elsewhere. The peripheral countries’ external deficits are falling rapidly, thus diminishing the need for foreign financing.
The debate about austerity and the high cost of public debt is thus misleading on two accounts. First, it has often been pointed out that austerity can be self-defeating, because a reduction in the fiscal deficit can lead in the short run to an increase in the debt/GDP ratio if both the debt level and the multiplier are large. But austerity can never be self-defeating for the external adjustment. On the contrary, the larger the fall in domestic demand in response to a cut in government expenditure, the more imports will fall and the stronger the improvement in the current account – and thus ultimately the reduction in the risk premium – will be.
Italy’s experience is enlightening: the large tax increases implemented by former Prime Minister Mario Monti’s technocratic government in 2012 had a higher-than-expected impact on demand. The economy is contracting so much that the debt/GDP ratio is actually increasing, and the actual deficit is improving only marginally, because government revenues are falling along with GDP. But a side effect of the fall in GDP is a strong decline in imports – and thus a strong improvement in the current account, which is why the risk premium continues to fall, despite the political turmoil unleashed by the country’s inconclusive recent election.
Second, if foreign debt is the real problem, the escalating debate about the Reinhart/Rogoff results is irrelevant for the euro crisis. Countries that have their own currency, like the United Kingdom – and especially the United States, which can borrow from foreigners in dollars – do not face a direct financing constraint.
For these countries, it matters whether history suggests that there is a strong threshold effect once public debt exceeds 90% of GDP. But the eurozone’s peripheral countries simply did not have a choice: they had to reduce their deficits, because the foreign capital on which their economies were so dependent was no longer available.
But the reverse is also true: as soon as the current account swings to surplus, the pressure from financial markets abates. This is likely to happen soon. At this point, peripheral countries will regain their fiscal sovereignty – and will be able to ignore Reinhart and Rogoff’s warning at their own risk.