Economics, Model

Why External Debt is so Dangerous to Developing Countries

I have previously written about how to evaluate and think about public debt in stable, developed countries. There, the overall message was that the dangers of debt were often (but not always) overhyped and cynically used by certain politicians. In a throwaway remark, I suggested the case was rather different for developing countries. This post unpacks that remark. It looks at why things go so poorly when developing countries take on debt and lays out a set of policies that I think could help developing countries that have high debt loads.

The very first difference in debt between developed and developing countries lies in the available terms of credit; developing countries get much worse terms. This makes sense, as they’re often much more likely to default on their debt. Interest scales with risk and it just is riskier to lend money to Zimbabwe than to Canada.

But interest payments aren’t the only way in which developing countries get worse terms. They are also given fewer options for the currency they take loans out in. And by fewer, I mean very few. I don’t think many developing countries are getting loans that aren’t denominated in US dollars, Euros, or, if dealing with China, Yuan. Contrast this with Canada, which has no problem taking out loans in its own currency.

When you own the currency of your debts, you can devalue it in response to high debt loads, making your debts cheaper to pay off in real terms (that is to say, your debt will be equivalent to fewer goods and services than it was before you caused inflation by devaluing your currency). This is bad for lenders. In the event of devaluation, they lose money. Depending on the severity of the inflation, it could be worse for them than a simple default would be, because they cannot even try and recover part of the loan in court proceedings.

(Devaluations don’t have to be large to be reduce debt costs; they can also take the form of slightly higher inflation, such that interest is essentially nil on any loans. This is still quite bad for lenders and savers, although less likely to be worse than an actual default. The real risk comes when a country with little economic sophistication tries to engineer slightly higher inflation. It seems likely that they could drastically overshoot, with all of the attendant consequences.)

Devaluations and inflation are also politically fraught. They are especially hard on pensioners and anyone living on a fixed income – which is exactly the population most likely to make their displeasure felt at the ballot box. Lenders know that many interest groups would oppose a Canadian devaluation, but these sorts of governance controls and civil society pressure groups often just doesn’t exist (or are easily ignored by authoritarian leaders) in the developing world, which means devaluations can be less politically difficult [1].

Having the option to devalue isn’t the only reason why you might want your debts denominated in your own currency (after all, it is rarely exercised). Having debts denominated in a foreign currency can be very disruptive to the domestic priorities of your country.

The Canadian dollar is primarily used by Canadians to buy stuff they want [2]. The Canadian government naturally ends up with Canadian dollars when people pay their taxes. This makes the loan repayment process very simple. Canadians just need to do what they’d do anyway and as long as tax rates are sufficient, loans will be repaid.

When a developing country takes out a loan denominated in foreign currency, they need some way to turn domestic production into that foreign currency in order to make repayments. This is only possible insofar as their economy produces something that people using the loan currency (often USD) want. Notably, this could be very different than what the people in the country want.

For example, the people of a country could want to grow staple crops, like cassava or maize. Unfortunately, they won’t really be able to sell these staples for USD; there isn’t much market for either in the US. There very well could be room for the country to export bananas to the US, but this means that some of their farmland must be diverted away from growing staples for domestic consumption and towards growing cash crops for foreign consumption. The government will have an incentive to push people towards this type of agriculture, because they need commodities that can be sold for USD in order to make their loan payments [3].

As long as the need for foreign currency persists, countries can be locked into resource extraction and left unable to progress towards a more mature manufacturing- or knowledge-based economies.

This is bad enough, but there’s often greater economic damage when a country defaults on its foreign loans – and default many developing countries will, because they take on debt in a highly procyclical way [4].

A variable, indicator, or quantity is said to be procyclical if it is correlated with the overall health of an economy. We say that developing nation debt is procyclical because it tends to expand while economies are undergoing expansion. Specifically, new developing country debts seem to be correlated with many commodity prices. When commodity prices are high, it’s easier for developing countries that export them to take on debt.

It’s easy to see why this might be the case. Increasing commodity prices make the economies of developing countries look better. Exporting commodities can bring in a lot of money, which can have spillover effects that help the broader economy. As long as taxation isn’t too much a mess, export revenues make government revenues higher. All of this makes a country look like a safer bet, which makes credit cheaper, which makes a country more likely to take it on.

Unfortunately (for resource dependent countries; fortunately for consumes), most commodity price increases do not last forever. It is important to remember that prices are a signal – and that high prices are a giant flag that says “here be money”. Persistently high prices lead to increased production, which can eventually lead to a glut and falling prices. This most recently and spectacularly happened in 2014-2015, as American and Canadian unconventional oil and gas extraction led to a crash in the global price of oil [5].

When commodity prices crash, indebted, export-dependent countries are in big trouble. They are saddled with debt that is doubly difficult to pay back. First, their primary source of foreign cash for paying off their debts is gone with the crash in commodity prices (this will look like their currency plummeting in value). Second, their domestic tax base is much lower, starving them of revenue.

Even if a country wants to keep paying its debts, a commodity crash can leave them with no choice but a default. A dismal exchange rate and minuscule government revenues mean that the money to pay back dollar denominated debts just doesn’t exist.

Oddly enough, defaulting can offer some relief from problems; it often comes bundled with a restructuring, which results in lower debt payments. Unfortunately, this relief tends to be temporary. Unless it’s coupled with strict austerity, it tends to lead into another problem: devastating inflation.

Countries that end up defaulting on external debt are generally not living within their long-term means. Often, they’re providing a level of public services that are unsustainable without foreign borrowing, or they’re seeing so much government money diverted by corrupt officials that foreign debt is the only way to keep the lights on. One inevitable effect of a default is losing access to credit markets. Even when a restructuring can stem the short-term bleeding, there is often a budget hole left behind when the foreign cash dries up [6]. Inflation occurs because many governments with weak institutions fill this budgetary void with the printing press.

There is nothing inherently wrong with printing money, just like there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a shot of whiskey. A shot of whiskey can give you the courage to ask out the cute person at the bar; it can get you nerved up to sing in front of your friends. Or it can lead to ten more shots and a crushing hangover. Printing money is like taking shots. In some circumstances, it can really improve your life, it’s fine in moderation, but if you overdue it you’re in for a bad time.

When developing countries turn to the printing press, they often do it like a sailor turning to whiskey after six weeks of enforced sobriety.

Teachers need to be paid? Print some money. Social assistance? Print more money. Roads need to be maintained? Print even more money.

The money supply should normally expand only slightly more quickly than economic growth [7]. When it expands more quickly, prices begin to increase in lockstep. People are still paid, but the money is worth less. Savings disappear. Velocity (the speed with which money travels through the economy) increases as people try and spend money as quickly as possible, driving prices ever higher.

As the currency becomes less and less valuable, it becomes harder and harder to pay for imports. We’ve already talked about how you can only buy external goods in your own currency to the extent that people outside your country have a use for your currency. No one has a use for a rapidly inflating currency. This is why Venezuela is facing shortages of food and medicine – commodities it formerly imported but now cannot afford.

The terminal state of inflation is hyperinflation, where people need to put their currency in wheelbarrows to do anything with it. Anyone who has read about Germany in the 1930s knows that hyperinflation opens the door to demagogues and coups – to anything or anyone who can convince the people that the suffering can be stopped.

Taking into account all of this – the inflation, the banana plantations, the boom and bust cycles – it seems clear that it might be better if developing countries took on less debt. Why don’t they?

One possible explanation is the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The IMF often acts as a lender of last resort, giving countries bridging loans and negotiating new repayment terms when the prospect of default is raised. The measures that the IMF takes to help countries repay their debts have earned it many critics who rightly note that there can be a human cost to the budget cuts the IMF demands as a condition for aid [8]. Unfortunately, this is not the only way the IMF might make sovereign defaults worse. It also seems likely that the IMF represents a significant moral hazard, one that encourages risky lending to countries that cannot sustain debt loads long-term [9].

A moral hazard is any situation in which someone takes risks knowing that they won’t have to pay the penalty if their bet goes sour. Within the context of international debt and the IMF, a moral hazard arises when lenders know that they will be able to count on an IMF bailout to help them recover their principle in the event of a default.

In a world without the IMF, it is very possible that borrowing costs would be higher for developing countries, which could serve as a deterrent to taking on debt.

(It’s also possible that countries with weak institutions and bad governance will always take on unsustainable levels of debt, absent some external force stopping them. It’s for this reason that I’d prefer some sort of qualified ban on loaning to developing countries that have debt above some small fraction of their GDP over any plan that relies on abolishing the IMF in the hopes of solving all problems related to developing country debt.)

Paired with a qualified ban on new debt [10], I think there are two good arguments for forgiving much of the debt currently held by many developing countries.

First and simplest are the humanitarian reasons. Freed of debt burdens, developing countries might be able to provide more services for their citizens, or invest in infrastructure so that they could grow more quickly. Debt forgiveness would have to be paired with institutional reform and increased transparency, so that newfound surpluses aren’t diverted into the pockets of kleptocrats, which means any forgiveness policy could have the added benefit of acting as a big stick to force much needed governance changes.

Second is the doctrine of odious debts. An odious debt is any debt incurred by a despotic leader for the purpose of enriching themself or their cronies, or repressing their citizens. Under the legal doctrine of odious debts, these debts should be treated as the personal debt of the despot and wiped out whenever there is a change in regime. The logic behind this doctrine is simple: by loaning to a despot and enabling their repression, the creditors committed a violent act against the people of the country. Those people should have no obligation (legal or moral) to pay back their aggressors.

The doctrine of odious debts wouldn’t apply to every indebted developing country, but serious arguments can be made that several countries (such as Venezuela) should expect at least some reduction in their debts should the local regime change and international legal scholars (and courts) recognize the odious debt principle.

Until international progress is made on a clear list of conditions under which countries cannot take on new debt and a comprehensive program of debt forgiveness, we’re going to see the same cycle repeat over and over again. Countries will take on debt when their commodities are expensive, locking them into an economy dependent on resource extraction. Then prices will fall, default will loom, and the IMF will protect investors. Countries are left gutted, lenders are left rich, taxpayers the world over hold the bag, and poverty and misery continue – until the cycle starts over once again.

A global economy without this cycle of boom, bust, and poverty might be one of our best chances of providing stable, sustainable growth to everyone in the world. I hope one day we get to see it.

Footnotes

[1] I so wanted to get through this post without any footnotes, but here we are.

There’s one other reason why e.g. Canada is a lower risk for devaluation than e.g. Venezuela: central bank independence. The Bank of Canada is staffed by expert economists and somewhat isolated from political interference. It is unclear just how much it would be willing to devalue the currency, even if that was the desire of the Government of Canada.

Monetary policy is one lever of power that almost no developed country is willing to trust directly to politicians, a safeguard that doesn’t exist in all developing countries. Without it, devaluation and inflation risk are much higher. ^

[2] Secondarily it’s used to speculatively bet on the health of the resource extraction portion of the global economy, but that’s not like, too major of a thing. ^

[3] It’s not that the government is directly selling the bananas for USD. It’s that the government collects taxes in the local currency and the local currency cannot be converted to USD unless the country has something that USD holders want. Exchange rates are determined based on how much people want to hold one currency vs. another. A decrease in the value of products produced by a country relative to other parts of the global economy means that people will be less interested in holding that country’s currency and its value will fall. This is what happened in 2015 to the Canadian dollar; oil prices fell (while other commodity prices held steady) and the value of the dollar dropped.

Countries that are heavily dependent on the export of only one or two commodities can see wild swings in their currencies as those underlying commodities change in value. The Russian ruble, for example, is very tightly linked to the price of oil; it lost half its value between 2014 and 2016, during the oil price slump. This is a much larger depreciation than the Canadian dollar (which also suffered, but was buoyed up by Canada’s greater economic diversity). ^

[4] This section is drawn from the research of Dr. Karmen Reinhart and Dr. Kenneth Rogoff, as reported in This Time Is Different, Chapter 5: Cycles of Default on External Debt. ^

[5] This is why peak oil theories ultimately fell apart. Proponents didn’t realize that consistently high oil prices would lead to the exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbons. The initial research and development of these new sources made sense only because of the sky-high oil prices of the day. In an efficient market, profits will always eventually return to 0. We don’t have a perfectly efficient market, but it’s efficient enough that commodity prices rarely stay too high for too long. ^

[6] Access to foreign cash is gone because no one lends money to countries that just defaulted on their debts. Access to external credit does often come back the next time there’s a commodity bubble, but that could be a decade in the future. ^

[7] In some downturns, a bit of extra inflation can help lower sticky wages in real terms and return a country to full employment. My reading suggests that commodity crashes are not one of those cases. ^

[8] I’m cynical enough to believe that there is enough graft in most of these cases that human costs could be largely averted, if only the leaders of the country were forced to see their graft dry up. I’m also pragmatic enough to believe that this will rarely happen. I do believe that one positive impact of the IMF getting involved is that its status as an international institution gives it more power with which to force transparency upon debtor nations and attempt to stop diversion of public money to well-connected insiders. ^

[9] A quick search found two papers that claimed there was a moral hazard associated with the IMF and one article hosted by the IMF (and as far as I can tell, later at least somewhat repudiated by the author in the book cited in [4]) that claims there is no moral hazard. Draw what conclusions from this you will. ^

[10] I’m not entirely sure what such a ban would look like, but I’m thinking some hard cap on amount loaned based on percent of GDP, with the percent able to rise in response to reforms that boost transparency, cut corruption, and establish modern safeguards on the central bank. ^

Economics, History, Politics

A Cross of Gold: The Best Speech You’ve Never Heard

Friends, lend me your ears.

I write today about a speech that was once considered the greatest political speech in American history. Even today, after Reagan, Obama, Eisenhower, and King, it is counted among the very best. And yet this speech has passed from the history we have learned. Its speaker failed in his ambitions and the cause he championed is so archaic that most people wouldn’t even understand it.

I speak of Congressman Will J Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech.

William Jennings Bryan was a congressman from Nebraska, a lawyer, a three-time Democratic candidate for president (1896, 1900, 1908), the 41st Secretary of State, and oddly enough, the lawyer for the prosecution at the Scopes Monkey Trial. He was also a “silver Democrat”, one of the insurgents who rose to challenge Democratic President Grover Cleveland and the Democratic party establishment over their support for gold over a bimetallic (gold plus silver) currency system.

The dispute over bimetallic currency is now more than a hundred years old and has been made entirely moot by the floating US dollar and the post-Bretton Woods international monetary order. Still, it’s worth understanding the debate about bimetallism, because the concerns Bryan’s speech raised are still concerns today. Once you understand why Bryan argued for what he did, this speech transforms from dusty history into still-relevant insights into live issues that our political process still struggles to address.

When Alexander Hamilton was setting up a currency system for the United States, he decided that there would be a bimetallic standard. Both gold and silver currency would be issued by the mint, with the US Dollar specified in terms of both metals. Any citizen could bring gold or silver to the mint and have it struck into coins (for a small fee, which covered operating costs).

Despite congressional attempts to tweak the ratio between the metals, problems often emerged. Whenever gold was worth more by weight than it was as currency, it would be bought using silver and melted down for profit. Whenever the silver dollar was undervalued, the same thing happened to it. By 1847, the silver in coins was so overvalued that silver coinage had virtually disappeared from circulation and many people found themselves unable to complete low-value transactions.

Congress responded by debasing silver coins, which led to an increase in the supply of coins and for a brief time, there was a stable equilibrium where people actually could find and use silver coins. Unfortunately, the equilibrium didn’t last and the discovery of new silver deposits swung things in the opposite direction, leading to fears that people would use silver to buy gold dollars and melt them down outside the country. Since international trade was conducted in gold, it would have been very bad for America had all the gold coins disappeared.

Congress again responded, this time by burying the demonetization of several silver coins (including the silver dollar) in a bill that was meant to modernize the mint. The logic here was that no one would be able to buy up any significant amount of gold if they had to do it in nickels. Unfortunately for congress, a depression happened right after they passed the bill.

Some people blamed the depression on the change in coinage and popular sentiment in some corners became committed to the re-introduction of the silver dollar.

The silver supplies that caused this whole fracas hadn’t gone anywhere. People knew that re-introducing silver would have been an inflationary measure, as the statutory amount of silver in a dollar would have been worth about $0.75 in gold backed currency, but they largely didn’t care – or viewed that as a positive. The people clamouring for silver also didn’t conduct much international trade, so they didn’t mind if silver currency drove out gold and made trade difficult.

There were attempts to remonetize the silver dollar over the next twenty years, but they were largely unsuccessful. A few mine owners found markets for their silver at the mint when law demanded a series of one-off runs of silver coins, but congress never restored bimetallism to the point that there was any significant silver in circulation – or significant inflation. Even these limited silver-minting measures were repealed in 1893, which left the United States on a de facto gold standard.

For many, the need for silver became more urgent after the Panic of 1893, which featured everything a good Gilded Age panic normally did – bank runs, failing railways, declines in trade, credit crunches, a crash in commodity prices, and the inevitable run on the US gold reserves.

The commodity price crash hit farmers especially hard. They were heavily indebted and had no real way to pay it off – unless their debts were reduced by inflation. Since no one had found any large gold deposits anywhere (the Klondike gold rush didn’t actually produce anything until 1898 and the Fairbanks gold rush didn’t occur until 1902), that wasn’t going to happen on the gold standard. The Democrat grassroots quickly embraced bimetallism, while the party apparatus remained supporters of the post-1893 de facto gold standard.

This was the backdrop for Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech, which took place during summer 1896 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was already a famed orator and had been petitioning members of the party in secret for the presidential nomination, but his plans weren’t well known. He managed to go almost the entire convention without giving a speech. Then, once the grassroots had voted out the old establishment and began hammering out the platform, he arranged to be the closing speaker representing the delegates (about 66% of the total) who supported official bimetallism.

The convention had been marked by a lack of any effective oratory. In a stunning ten-minute speech (that stretched much longer because of repeated minutes-long interruptions for thunderous applause) Bryan singlehandedly changed that and won the nomination.

And this whole thing, the lobbying before the convention and the carefully crafted surprise moment, all of it makes me think of how effective Aaron Swartz’s Theory of Change idea can be when executed correctly.

Theory of Change says that if there’s something you want to accomplish, you shouldn’t start with what you’re good at and work towards it. You should start with the outcome you want and keep asking yourself how you’ll accomplish it.

Bryan decided that he wanted America to have a bimetallic currency. Unfortunately, there was a political class united in its opposition to this policy. That meant he needed a president that favoured it. Without the president, you need to get 66% of Congress and the Senate onboard and that clearly wasn’t happening with the country’s elites so hostile to silver.

Okay, well how do you get a president who’s in favour of restoring silver as currency? You make sure one of the two major parties nominates a candidate in favour of it, first of all. Since the Republicans (even then the party of big business) weren’t going to do it, it had to be the Democrats.

That means the question facing Bryan became: “how do you get the Democrats to pick a presidential candidate that supports silver?”

And this question certainly wasn’t easy. Bryan on his own couldn’t guarantee it, because it required delegates at least sympathetic to the idea. But there was a national backdrop such that that seemed likely, as long as there was a good candidate all of the “silver men” could unite around.

So, Bryan needed to ensure there was a good candidate and that that candidate got elected. Well, that was a problem, because neither of the two leading silver candidates were very popular. Luckily, Bryan was a Democrat, a former congressman, and kind of popular.

I think this is when the plan must have crystalized. Bryan just needed to deliver a really good speech to an already receptive audience. With the cachet from an excellent speech, he would clearly become the choice of silver supporting Democrats, become the Democratic party presidential candidate, and win the presidency. Once all that was accomplished, silver coins would become money again.

The fantastic thing is that it almost worked. Bryan was nominated on the Democratic ticket, absorbed the Populist party into the Democratic party to prevent a vote split, and came within 600,000 votes of winning the presidency. All because of a plan. All because of a speech.

So, what did he say?

Well, the full speech is available here. I do really recommend it. But I want to highlight three specific parts.

A Too Narrow Definition of “Business”

We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day—who begins in the spring and toils all summer—and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.

In some ways, this passage is as much the source of the mythology of the American Dream as the inscription on the statue of liberty. Bryan rejects any definition of businessman that focuses on the richest in the coastal cities and instead substitutes a definition that opens it up to any common man who earns a living. You can see echoes of this paragraph in almost every presidential speech by almost every presidential candidate.

Think of anyone you’ve heard running for president in recent years. Now read the following sentence in their voice: “Small business owners – like Monica in Texas – who are struggling to keep their business running in these tough economic times need all the help we can give them”. It works because “small business owners” has become one of the sacred cows of American rhetoric.

Bryan added this line just days before he delivered the speech. It was the only part of the whole thing that was at all new. And because this speech inspired a generation of future speeches, it passed into the mythology of America.

Trickle Down or Trickle Up

Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between “the idle holders of idle capital” and “the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country”; and, my friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses”? That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

Almost a full century before Reagan’s trickle-down economics, Democrats were taking a stand against that entire world-view. Through all its changes – from the party of slavery to the party of civil rights, from the party of the Southern farmers to the party of “coastal elites” – the Democratic party has always viewed itself as hewing to this one simple principle. Indeed, the core difference between the Republican party and the Democratic party may be that the Republican party views the role of government to “get out of the way” of the people, while the Democratic party believes that the job of government is to “make the masses prosperous”.

A Cross of Gold

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

This is perhaps the best ending to a speech I have ever seen. Apparently at the conclusion of the address, dead silence endured for several seconds and Bryan worried he had failed. Two police officers in the audience were ahead of the curve and rushed Bryan – so that they could protect him from the inevitable crush.

Bryan turned what could have been a dry, dusty, nitty-gritty issue into the overriding moral question of his day. In fact, by co-opting the imagery of the crown of thorns and the cross, he tapped into the most powerful vein of moral imagery that existed in his society. Invoking the cross, the central mystery and miracle of Christianity cannot but help to put (in a thoroughly Christian society) an issue on a moral footing, as opposed to an intellectual one.

This sort of moral rather than intellectual posture is a hallmark of any insurgency against a technocratic order. Technocrats (myself among them!) like to pretend that we can optimize public policy. It is, to us, often a matter of just finding the solution that empirically provides the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Who could be against that?

But by presupposing that the only moral principle is the greatest good for the greatest number, we obviate moral contemplation in favour of tinkering with numbers and variables.

(The most cutting critique of utilitarianism I’ve ever seen delivered was: “[These problems are] seen in the light of a technical or practical difficulty and utilitarianism appeals to a frame of mind in which technical difficulty, even insuperable technical difficulty, is preferable to moral unclarity, no doubt because it is less alarming.”, a snide remark by the great British ethicist Sir Bernard Williams from his half of Utilitarianism for and against.)

This avoiding-the-question-so-we-can-tinker is a policy that can provoke a backlash like Bryan. Leaving aside entirely the difficulty of truly knowing which policies will have “good” results, there’s the uncomfortable truth that not every policy is positive sum. Even positive sum policies can hurt people. Bryan ran for president because questions of monetary policy aren’t politically neutral.

The gold standard, for all the intellectual arguments behind it, was hurting people. Maybe not a majority of people, but people nonetheless. There’s a whole section of the speech where Bryan points out that the established order cannot just say “changes will hurt my business”, because the current situation was hurting other people’s businesses too.

It is very tempting to write that questions of monetary policy “weren’t” politically neutral. After all, there’s a pretty solid consensus on monetary policy these days (well, except for the neo-Fisherians, but there’s a reason no one listens to them). But even (especially) a consensus among experts can be challenged by legitimate political disagreements. When the Fed chose to pull interest rates low as stimulus for the economy after 2008, it put the needs of people trying to find jobs over those of retired people who held their savings in safe bonds.

If you lower speed limits, you make roads safer for law abiding citizens and less safe for people who habitually speed. If you decriminalize drugs, you protect rich techies who microdose on LSD and hurt people who view decriminalization as license to dabble in opiates.

Even the best intentioned or best researched public policy can hurt people. Even if you (like me) believe in the greatest good for the greatest number of people, you have to remember that. You can’t ever let hurting people be easy or unthinking.

Even though it failed in its original aim and even though the cause it promotes is dead, I want people to remember Bryan’s speech. I especially want people who hold power to remember Bryan’s speech. Bryan chose oratory as his vehicle, his way of standing up for people who were hurt by well-intentioned public policy. In 1896, I might have stood against Bryan. But that doesn’t mean I want his speech and the lessons it teaches to be forgotten. Instead, I view it as a call to action, a call to never turn away from the people you hurt, even when you know you are doing right. A call to not forget them. A call to try and help them too.

Economics, Politics

When To Worry About Public Debt

I watch a lot of political debates with my friends. A couple of them have turned to me after watching heated arguments about public debt and (because I have a well-known habit of reading monetary policy blogs) asked me who is right. I hear questions like:

Is it true that public debt represents an unfair burden on our hypothetical grandchildren? Is all this talk about fiscal discipline and balanced budgets pointless? Is it really bad when public debt gets over 100% of a country’s GDP? How can the threat of defaulting on loans lead to inflation and ruin?

And what does all this mean for Ontario? Is Doug Ford right about the deficit?

This is my attempt to sort this all out in a public and durable form. Now when I’ve taken a political debate drinking game too far, I’ll still be able to point people towards the answers to their questions.

(Disclaimer: I’m not an economist. Despite the research I did for it and the care with which I edited, this post may contain errors, oversimplifications, or misunderstandings.)

Is Public Debt A Burden On Future Generations?

Among politicians of a certain stripe, it’s common to compare the budget of a country to the budget of a family. When a family is budgeting, any shortfall must be paid for via loans. Left unspoken is the fact that many families find themselves in a rather large amount of debt early on – because they need a mortgage to buy their dwelling. The only way a family can ever get out of debt is by maintaining a monthly surplus until their mortgage is paid off, then being careful to avoid taking on too much new debt.

Becoming debt free is desirable to individuals for two reasons. First, it makes their retirement (feel) much more secure. Given that retirement generally means switching to a fixed income or living off savings, it can be impossible to pay off the principle of a debt after someone makes the decision to retire.

Second, parents often desire to leave something behind for their children. This is only possible if their assets outweigh their debts.

Countries have to grapple with neither of these responsibilities. While it is true that the average age in many countries is steadily increasing, countries that have relatively open immigration policies and are attractive to immigrants largely avoid this problem. Look at how Canada and the United States compare to Italy and Japan in working age population percentage, for example.

Graph showing % of working age population in 4 OECD countries: Japan, Canada, USA, Italy.
After seeing this graph, I realized how hyperbolic it was to talk about Japan’s aging population. Source: OECD.

 

Even in Japan, where this is “dire”, the percentage of the population that is working age is equivalent to the percentage of the population that was working age in Canada or America in 1970. As lifespans increase, we may have to expand our definition of working age. But some combination of immigration, better support for parents, and better support for older citizens who wish to keep working will prevent us from ever getting to a point where it’s sensible to talk about a country “retiring”.

Since countries don’t “retire”, they don’t have to cope with the worry of “needing to work later to pay off that debt”. Since countries don’t have children, they don’t have to worry about having something to pass on. Countries don’t ever actually have to pay back all of their debt. They can continue to roll it over indefinitely, as long as someone is willing to continue to loan them money at a rate they’re willing to pay.

What I mean by “rolling over”, is that countries can just get a new loan for the same amount as their last one, as soon as the previous loan comes due. If interest rates have risen (either in general, or because the country is a greater risk) since their last loan, the new loan will be more expensive. If they’ve fallen, it will be cheaper. Rolling over loans changes the interest rate a country is paying, but doesn’t change the amount it owes.

Is Talk Of Discipline Pointless?

No.

Even if countries don’t really ever have to pay back the principle on their loans, they do have to make interest payments (borrowing to pay these is possible, but it isn’t a good look and can pretty quickly lead to dangerous levels of debt). The effect of these payments ranges from “it’s mildly annoying that we can’t spend that money on something better” to “we’re destroying our ecosystem growing bananas so that we have something to sell for cash to make our interest payments”. Lack of discipline and excessive debt levels can move a country closer to the second case.

In a well-integrated and otherwise successful economy with ample room in its governmental budget, interest payments are well worth the advantage of getting money early. When this money is used to create economic benefits that accrue faster than the interest payments, countries are net beneficiaries. If you take out a loan that charges 1-2% interest a year and use it to build a bridge that drives 4% economic growth for the next forty years, you’re ahead by 2-3% year on year. This is a good deal.

Unlike most talk about interest rates, where they’re entirely hypothetical, I really do mean that 1-2% figure. That’s actually higher than the average rate the US government has been paying to borrow over the last decade (Germany had it even better; they briefly paid negative interest rates). Governments – at least those with a relatively good track record around money – really have a superpower with how cheaply they can get money, so if nothing else, it’s worth keeping debt relatively low so that they don’t lose their reputation for responsibility and continue to have access to cheap money for when they really need it.

That’s the case in a moderately disciplined developed nation with adequate foreign reserves, at least. In a cash-poor or underdeveloped economy where a decent portion of any loan is lost to cronyism and waste, the case for loans being positive is much more… mixed. For these countries, discipline means “taking no loans at all”.

When discipline falls apart and debt levels rise too high, very bad things start to happen.

Is 100% of GDP The Line Beyond Which Debt Shouldn’t Rise?

There is nothing special about 100% of GDP, except that people think it is special.

Sometimes, people talk about markets like they’re these big impersonal systems that have no human input. This feels true because the scale of the global financial system is such that from the perspective of pretty much any individual person, they’re impersonal and impossible to really influence. But ultimately, other than a few high frequency trading platforms, all decisions in a market have to be made by humans.

Humans have decided that in certain cases, it’s bad when a country has more than 100% of its GDP in debt. This means that it becomes much more expensive to get new loans (and because of the constant rollover, even old loans eventually become new loans) when a country crosses this Rubicon, which in turn makes them much more likely to default. There’s some element of self-fulfilling prophecy here!

(Obviously there does have to be some point where a country really is at risk from its debt load and obviously this needs to be scaled to country size and wealth to not be useless. I think people have chosen 100% of GDP more because it’s a nice round number and it’s simple to calculate, not because it has particularly great inherent predictive power, absent the power it has as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe the “objectively correct” number is in fact 132.7% of the value of all exports, or 198% of 5-year average government revenues… In either case, we’ve kind of lost our chance; any number calculated now would be heavily biased by the crisis of confidence that can happen when debt reaches 100% of GDP.)

That said, comparing a country’s debt load to its GDP without making adjustments is a recipe for confusion. While Everyone was fretting about Greece having ~125% of its GDP in debt, Japan was carrying 238% of its GDP in debt.

There are two reasons that Japan’s debt is much less worrying than Greece’s.

First, there’s the issue of who’s holding that debt. A very large portion of Japanese debt is held by its own central bank. By my calculations (based off the most recent BOJ numbers), the Bank of Japan is holding approximately 44% of the Japanese government’s debt. Given that the Bank of Japan is an organ of the Japanese Government (albeit an arm’s length one), this debt is kind of owed by the government of Japan, to the government of Japan. When 44% of every loan payment might ultimately find its way back to you, your loan payments become less scary.

Second, there’s the issue of denomination. Greek public debts are denominated in Euros, a currency that Greece doesn’t control. If Greece wants €100, it must collect €100 in taxes from its citizens. Greece cannot just create Euros.

Japanese debt is denominated in Yen. Because Japan controls the yen, it has two options for repaying ¥100 of debt. It can collect ¥100 in taxes – representing ¥100 worth of valuable work. Or it can print ¥100. There are obvious consequences to printing money, namely inflation. But given that Japan has struggled with chronic deflation and has consistently underperformed the inflation targets economists think it needs to meet, it’s clear that a bit of inflation isn’t the worst thing that could happen to it.

When evaluating whether a debt burden is a problem, you should always consider the denomination of the debt, who the debtholders are, and how much inflation a country can tolerate. It is always worse to hold debt in a denomination that you don’t control. It’s always worse to owe money to people who aren’t you (especially people more powerful than you), and it’s always easier to answer debt with inflation when your economy needs more inflation anyways.

This also suggests that government debt is much more troubling when it’s held by a sub-national institution than by a national institution (with the exception of Europe, where even nations don’t individually control the currency). In this case, monetary policy options are normally off the table and there’s normally someone who’s able to force you to pay your debt, no matter what that does to your region.

Developing countries very rarely issue debt in their own currency, mainly because no one is interested in buying it. This, combined with low foreign cash reserves puts them at a much higher risk of failing to make scheduled debt payments – i.e. experiencing an actual default.

What Happens If A Country Defaults?

No two defaults are exactly alike, so the consequences vary. That said, there do tend to be two common features: austerity and inflation.

Austerity happens for a variety of reasons. Perhaps spending levels were predicated on access to credit. Without that access, they can’t be maintained. Or perhaps a higher body mandated it; see for example Germany (well, officially, the EU) mandating austerity in Greece, or Michigan mandating austerity in Detroit.

Inflation also occurs for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the government tries to fill a budgetary shortfall and avoid austerity by printing bills. This flood of money bids up prices, ruins savings and causes real wages to decline. Perhaps it becomes hard to convince foreigners to accept the local currency in exchange for goods, so anything imported becomes very expensive. When many goods are imported, this can lead to very rapid inflation. Perhaps people in general lose faith in money (and so it becomes nearly worthless), maybe in conjunction with the debt crisis expanding to the financial sector and banks subsequently failing. Most likely, it will be some combination of these three, as well as others I haven’t thought to mention.

During a default, it’s common to see standards of living plummet, life savings disappear, currency flight into foreign denominations, promptly followed by currency controls, which prohibit sending cash outside of the country. Currency controls make leaving the country virtually impossible and make any necessary imports a bureaucratic headache. This is fine when the imports in question are water slides, but very bad when they’re chemotherapy drugs or rice.

On the kind of bright side, defaults also tend to lead to mass unemployment, which gives countries experiencing them comparative advantage in any person intensive industry. Commonly people would say “wages are low, so manufacturing moves there”, but that isn’t quite how international trade works. It’s not so much low wages that basic manufacturing jobs go in search of, but a workforce that can’t do anything more productive and less labour intensive. This looks the same, but has the correlation flipped. In either case, this influx of manufacturing jobs can contain within it the seed of later recovery.

If a country has sound economic management (like Argentina did in 2001), a default isn’t the end of the world. It can negotiate a “haircut” of its loans, giving its creditors something less than the full amount, but more than nothing. It might even be able to borrow again in a few years, although the rates that it will have to offer will start out in credit card territory and only slowly recover towards auto-loan territory.

When these trends aren’t managed by competent leadership, or when the same leaders (or leadership culture) that got a country into a mess are allowed to continue, the recovery tends to be moribund and the crises continual. See, for example, how Greece has limped along, never really recovering over the past decade.

Where Does Ontario Fit In?

My own home province of Ontario is currently in the midst of an election and one candidate, Doug Ford, has made the ballooning public debt the centrepiece of his campaign. Evaluating his claims gives us a practical example of how to evaluate claims of this sort in general.

First, Ontario doesn’t control the currency that its debt is issued in, which is an immediate risk factor for serious debt problems. Ontario also isn’t dominant enough within Canada to dictate monetary policy to the Federal Government. Inflation for the sake of saving Ontario would doom any sitting Federal government in every other province, so we can’t expect any help from the central bank.

Debt relief from the Federal government is possible, but it couldn’t come without hooks attached. We’d definitely lose some of our budgetary authority, certainly face austerity, and even then, it might be too politically unpalatable to the rest of the country.

However, the sky is not currently falling. While debt rating services have lost some confidence in our willingness, if not our ability to get spending under control and our borrowing costs have consequently risen, we’re not yet into a vicious downwards spiral. Our debt is at a not actively unhealthy 39% of the GDP and the interest rate is a non-usurious 4%.

That said, it’s increased more quickly than the economy has grown over the past decade. Another decade going on like we currently are certainly would put us at risk of a vicious cycle of increased interest rates and crippling debt.

Doug Ford’s emotional appeals about mortgaging our grandchildren’s future are exaggerated and false. I’ve already explained how countries don’t work like families. But there is a more pragmatic concern here. If we don’t control our spending now, on our terms, someone else – be it lenders in a default or the federal government in a bailout – will do it for us.

Imagine the courts forcing Ontario to service its debt before paying for social services and schools. Imagine the debt eating up a full quarter of the budget, with costs rising every time a loan is rolled over. Imagine our public services cut to the bone and our government paralyzed without workers. Things would get bad and the people who most need a helping hand from the government would be hit the hardest.

I plan to take this threat seriously and vote for a party with a credible plan to balance our budget in the short term.

If one even exists. Contrary to his protestations, Doug Ford isn’t leading a party committed to reducing the deficit. He’s publically pledged himself to scrapping the carbon tax. Absent it, but present the rest of his platform, the deficit spending is going to continue (during a period of sustained growth, no less!). Doug Ford is either lying about what he’s going to cut, or he’s lying about ending the debt. That’s not a gamble I particularly want to play.

I do hope that someone campaigns on a fully costed plan to restore fiscal order to Ontario. Because we are currently on the path to looking a lot like Greece.