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A Balance-Sheet Approach to Fiscal Policy

WASHINGTON, DC – Everyone is talking about debt, citing huge nominal figures that strongly affect public-policy debates worldwide. But all debt is not created equal.

For starters, when it comes to public debt, there is a big difference between the gross and net figures. While Japan’s gross public debt, for example, is a massive 246% of GDP, the net figure, accounting for intra-government debts, is 127% of GDP.

Moreover, what should really matter about a country’s public-debt burden is the expected annual cost of servicing it. As Daniel Gros recently pointed out, debt that can be rolled over indefinitely at zero interest rates is no debt at all. This is an extreme example; but the closer a fixed interest rate gets to zero, and the longer the maturity becomes, the lower the burden of the stock of debt.

Although Greece’s public debt amounts to about 175% of GDP, low interest rates – which are fixed for a large proportion of it – and long maturities mean that it may be more manageable than it seems. Greece’s ratio of public-debt service to GDP is similar to that of Portugal, or even Italy. Indeed, that is why the latest deal with Greece, which entails even more bailout funds, could work, as long as the country is accorded the debt reprofiling that it needs to reverse the decline of its GDP, reduces its primary surpluses, and pursues balance-sheet-strengthening reforms.