The coronavirus pandemic has taken a calamitous toll on the economy, with unemployment in April 2020 rising faster than in any month on record. The Treasury has responded with unprecedented measures to support workers, businesses and the self-employed, leading to a public deficit of £300bn this year.
How concerned should we be about the public debt, forecast to exceed the size of the UK economy? Public debt results when the government spends more than it raises in tax revenues – runs a public deficit – and borrows money to cover the gap. The government then pays interest on this debt, which is eventually repaid or rolled over by new borrowing. As long as interest rates are low – they are currently nearly zero – this poses few costs. The economy may also grow, generating more tax revenues and making it easier to repay the debt. But if interest rates rise faster than the economy grows, the public debt may increase to unsustainable levels. These may eventually require budget cuts or tax increases, often referred to as austerity.
The Centre for Macroeconomics (CfM) – a research centre bringing together experts from institutions such as the London School of Economics, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and the Bank of England – posed this question to a panel of some of the UK’s leading economists. Economists are a conservative lot: we like budgetary numbers to add up. So the responses might come as a surprise. With one exception, not a single panel member expressed concern about the deficit. What’s more, the majority thought that public debt should be ultimately addressed with tax increases, particularly on the wealthy; and the panel unanimously opposed public spending cuts. Several even advocated monetary financing of the deficit, in other words selling government bonds directly to the Bank of England. These days, not even economists support austerity.
These views are a far cry from the calls for budgetary cuts during the global financial crisis and reflect a substantial shift in economic thought that has been unfolding over the past few decades. The change isn’t solely a British phenomenon. German economists were particularly uncompromising on limiting deficits during the Eurozone crisis. But a new generation of German economists has been the vanguard in promoting “coronabonds”, which would mutualise debts of EU members. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was well-known for its conservative views on public deficits. The global financial crisis brought change to the institution, with its then chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, openly advocating stimulus over austerity.
Economic stabilisation through public spending was the brainchild of John Maynard Keynes during the Great Depression. But the Keynesian moment in economic thought was relatively short-lived. The global inflation of the 1970s brought a new generation of economists, sceptical about governments’ ability to use their budgetary power to support economic recovery. Keynesian views had been pushed so far to the sidelines that the Nobel laureate economist Robert Lucas Jr pronounced “the audience starts to whisper and giggle to one another” whenever Keyensian views were espoused in economics research seminars.
These views seeped into the political consciousness to the extent that by 1976, the prime minister, James Callaghan, told the Labour party conference that the option of “spend[ing] your way out of a recession and increas[ing] employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending” no longer existed and would only lead to inflation. These views were enshrined in the Washington Consensus, whose first principle, according to John Williamson, was: “Washington believes in fiscal discipline.”
The debate on the public debt re-emerged during the recession of 2008-9. A substantial faction in the economics profession continued to warn that fiscal stimulus was no way to recovery. At the same time, increasing numbers of mainstream economists, including the leadership of the IMF and Ben Bernanke, then head of the US Federal Reserve Board, supported the public spending expansions that the US government undertook and warned that the UK’s austerity programme would exacerbate the economic pain. The attitude shift was partly pragmatic. At the turn of the century, many economists had come to believe that central banks had the ability to resolve all macroeconomic woes. This position became less tenable when central banks around the world were running out of ammunition, having reduced interest rates to zero.
The slow recovery in the UK and the economic carnage in southern Europe – both following austerity policies – compared with the faster recovery in the US, appeared to lend further credence to the notion that active fiscal policy could be used to support economic recovery. This new view perhaps reached its apogee in Blanchard’s 2019 presidential address to the American Economic Association, where he argued that public debt is no longer of concern when interest rates are well below the economy’s growth rate. Our confidence that high-income countries, which are still able to borrow at low interest rates, will be spared may be premature. Public debt is indeed no concern when interest rates are at zero. But history shows us that governments’ borrowing rates may change dramatically when market sentiment shifts.
Benign deficit neglect is a ultimately a rich-country luxury. The developing world is now in the midst of the greatest public debt crisis in a generation. Governments from Argentina to Zambia are financing their deficits with great difficulty. As investors repatriated their funds to the relative safety of the US, these countries have seen rising borrowing rates and tumbling currencies, and will require (or already in the process of) debt restructuring.
Governments’ top priorities should remain the public health emergency and supporting the economy through these difficult times. But it would be wise to keep half an eye on the public debt clock.
• Ethan Ilzetzki is an economics lecturer at the London School of Economics. He heads the Centre for Macroeconomics panel of experts, and has held positions at the IMF and US Treasury.