The chart shows that those OECD countries with the greatest burden of debt servicing a decade ago have subsequently had the lowest growth in government spending. It isn’t hard to understand how that might happen when we think about the consequences of accumulating debt in our personal lives. If we go heavily into debt, a higher proportion of our income must be devoted to servicing debt and less is available for other spending. Our creditors are likely to be reluctant to extend further credit if they become concerned about our ability to service existing debt.
At a national level, there are additional complications including the potential for governments to inflate away the real value of debt denominated in local currency and possible ‘bailouts’ by the IMF and ECU. Nevertheless, governments that become poor credit risks must pay a higher risk premium than is normal for government bonds, in order to obtain access to additional credit.
There is evidence that rising government debt to GDP ratios are associated with lower economic growth, which in turn, leads to lower growth in government revenue. That obviously has potential to further squeeze non-interest government spending. The results of a recent study published by the Dallas Fed (‘Rising Public Debt to GDP Can Harm Economic Growth’, by Alexander Chudik, Kamiar Mohaddes, M. Hashem Pesaran and Mehdi Raissi) suggest that over the longer term persistent accumulation in debt as a percentage of GDP at an annual rate of 3 percent is eventually associated with annual GDP growth outcomes that are 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points lower on average. To put that in perspective, the average growth rate of OECD countries has been about 1.5 percent per annum over the last decade. Causality could run both ways. Lower GDP growth can lead to higher debt levels, which, in turn, can lead to lower economic growth.
You might be wondering why I think the chart shown above has much relevance for western democracies other than Greece, Italy and Portugal, which had high government debt servicing burdens a decade ago. The relevance stems partly from the continued increase in government debt as a percentage of GDP in most OECD countries over the last decade. On average, net financial liabilities of those countries have risen by around 23 percentage points of GDP over the last decade to around 67% of GDP in 2018.
Those looking for reasons to be complacent can obtain some reassurance from low world interest rates. With interest rates paid by governments lower than the rate of economic growth in most OECD countries, debt servicing is not yet a widespread problem. At current interest rates, it would be possible for the debt to GDP ratio to decline in most OECD countries, even if governments pay interest on their debts by borrowing additional funds.
How likely is it that world interest rates will remain at low levels over the next few decades? In their recent OECD paper, The Long View: Scenarios for the World Economy to 2060, Yvan Guillemette and David Turner suggest that relatively low growth in investment is likely to keep downward pressure on world interest rates, even though population ageing is likely to reduce savings rates. Nevertheless, they note evidence that reversals of the relationship between world interest rates and economic growth rates have been “fairly common” in the past. They warn that a sustained rise in interest rates relative to growth “could eventually make large debt stocks costly to service and unsustainable”. Their projections suggest that some decline in economic growth rates is likely to occur in most parts of the world over the next 40 years.
My concerns about the potential for debt stocks to become costly to service in many more OECD countries are related to the implications for government spending of the ongoing increase in the proportion of elderly people in the populations of these countries. The implications of demographic change have been much talked about over the last few years, but the magnitude of the likely impact on government spending doesn’t yet seem to be widely appreciated. The study by Guillemette and Turner projects an increase in annual public health and pension spending of about 5 percentage points of GDP for the median OECD country between 2018 and 2060. The bulk of that increase is for public health spending, which is projected to continue to be pushed up by technological change and government health policies, as well as demographic factors.
The methodology used by Guillemette and Turner produces estimates of the increase in the revenue to GDP ratio needed to pay for projected government spending increases without any further increase in debt to GDP ratios. An increase in revenue as a percentage of GDP of 6.5 percentage points of GDP is projected to be required for the median OECD country over the period to 2060. A much larger increase is projected to be required in some countries. For example, the required increase in revenue for the U.S. is projected to be 10 percentage points of GDP.
I think the baseline scenario presented by Guillemette and Turner is too optimistic because their modelling takes no account of the disincentive effects of higher taxation on GDP growth. The possible magnitude of this excess burden of taxation is discussed in an Australian context in an article posted on this blog a few years ago.
Leaving that aside, it seems to me that ongoing increases in debt to GDP ratios - and hence substantial increases in government interest payments as a percentage of GDP - are a much more likely outcome in most OECD countries than tax increases in the years ahead. In those countries where debt servicing isn’t yet a problem, there seems likely to be much less political opposition to further increases in public debt than to tax increases. That suggests to me that over the next few decades most OECD countries are likely to increase their debt to GDP ratios until debt servicing does become a more widespread problem.
Guillemette and Turner present scenarios that would require smaller increases in government revenues than in the baseline (no-change) policy scenario, but those scenarios involve health policy and labour market reforms that have been difficult to achieve in the past. I don’t think we can expect voters to be any more supportive of reforms that could damage their short-term interests than they have been in the past. The best we can hope for is that when they see the writing on the wall, a sufficient proportion of voters in most countries will be supportive of political parties proposing economic reforms, rather than waiting until they are imposed by creditors (or institutions such as the ECB and IMF). In 2013 I wrote something here contrasting the responses of Sweden and Greece to fiscal crises, that illustrates the choices available.
The transition may be traumatic, but it seems likely that technological advances will provide options superior to government provision of many services in coming decades. What I have in mind particularly is the potential for blockchain to enhance opportunities to seek mutual benefit in voluntary cooperative enterprises, as previously discussed on this blog. That may create potential for functions to be transferred from the public sector to cooperative enterprises that can perform the functions more efficiently.
During the next few decades most of the western democracies seem likely to experience ongoing difficulty in coping with the additional government spending required to meet the health needs of the elderly. The most likely outcome seems to me to be an increase in debt to GDP ratios that will result in more widespread debt servicing problems. It seems inevitable that debt servicing problems will lead to a lower rate of growth in government spending in many OECD countries, possibly accompanied by the transfer of some functions to voluntary cooperative enterprises.
That leaves the difficult question of identifying which of the western democracies are more likely to be able to implement those reforms through normal democratic processes in order to avoid having austerity imposed upon them by creditors and international agencies.