...against fictions and other tall tales

Monday, 31 December 2012

Evsey Domar's "On Deficits and Debt": A survival guide for making sense of today's economic challenges

As I look back to 2012, I'm reminded about how relevant the work of economist Evsey Domar, the late Professor of Economics at MIT and previously a Federal Reserve staff economist, is for making sense of the predicament facing the US and the world economies today.  Three news stories during the last year provided a good backdrop for presenting Domar’s views on public debt, budget deficits and economic growth.

First, there was the surprising about face during the summer months when European leaders switched from advocating austerity to voicing their support for actions that promote growth.  Professor Domar would have most likely approved of this change of heart by Europe’s ruling elite given that, many decades ago, Domar authored “The Burden of the Debt and National Income” (1944), a paper which argues that “the problem of the burden of the debt is a problem of achieving a growing national income” rather than one associated with the size of the budget deficit or national debt.

E. Domar
Specifically, in his paper, Domar demonstrated that, in the long run, the ratio of debt to GDP will gradually approach the ratio of the fraction of GDP borrowed each year to the rate of growth of GDP.  So, for instance, the US federal government borrowed approximately 7 percent of GDP in 2012.  If the borrowing continued at the same rate and the GDP (in money terms) grows at 2 percent per year, the ratio of debt to GDP will approach 3.5; with a 3 percent growth, it will be 2.3.

Thus, Domar showed that "less attention should be devoted to the problem of the debt and more to finding ways of achieving a growing national income" (1945:415)

According to Domar, attempting to reduce the public debt by cutting government expenditures (thus removing a significant source of income and growth from the economy) is largely self-defeating and exactly the wrong course of action if undertaken when the economy is struggling.

Then, in the fall, there was the debate among economists and bloggers about the intergenerational burden of the public debt.  Had he been around, Professor Domar would have probably been disappointed to learn that issues addressed (and, for many, put to rest) decades ago are still being debated.

And now we're facing the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’, a metaphor depicting the slowdown facing the US economy as a result of the expiry of tax breaks enacted at a time when the US federal fiscal budget situation was in better shape.  In the face of such a situation, Domar would have understood that the last thing policymakers should do when the economy is weak is to increase taxes which take away purchasing power from the economy.

As we enter a New Year, it is worth remembering Domar’s views on these and other related issues.  And nowhere are these matters best addressed than in his short, three-page article “On Deficits and Debt” published in 1993.  In this article, Domar challenges many of the widely held beliefs about debt and deficits. 

First, the article begins by taking on the popular view that considers the US federal government debt as analogous to household debt:
Our old puritanical injunctions against running into debt remain valid when applied to a private person. He or she can disregard them only at his or her peril.  A large corporation has more leeway: it can borrow by issuing bonds, and replace them with new ones when they fall due. If many large corporations simultaneously decided to pay off their debts, our economy would collapse: it is based on credit, the inverse of debt. Still any corporation, however large can go bankrupt...But, the Federal government is in a class by itself: so long as its debt is expressed in dollars (which fortunately is the case), it can always print as many dollars as it needs to pay the interest, though nowadays it would issue bonds, sell them in the market and, if necessary, have the Federal Reserve repurchase them. The Federal government, the creator of the Federal Reserve System, is its own banker.
Then, Domar describes the merits of a budget deficit:
By definition, a budget deficit means that the government spends more money then it receives, or, in other words, that it creates more purchasing power by its expenditures than it destroys through taxes.  Is this good or bad? It depends. If the economy is working to capacity, the creation of extra purchasing power will do little good and much harm: it will cause an inflation, which is easy to start and hard to stop. But when the economy has plenty of unused resources, the additional purchasing power is welcome. At such a time, we should rebuild our physical infrastructure, improve our education, health, and environment, and intensify our scientific and industrial research efforts, without raising taxes and without reducing or eliminating other needed services, always keeping a watchful eye on economic barometers to make sure that we do not overdo it.
All this sounds nice and easy, perhaps too easy to avoid suspicion. Are we to get something for nothing, as the old saying goes? Is there such a thing as a free lunch, after all? The offer of a free lunch is strictly temporary; it lasts only so long as unused resources, and particularly unemployed labor, are available, because they can be put to use with little, if any, social cost. But one they are gone government expenditures, however, desirable, must be matched with revenue.
Later in the article, Domar explains that the true burden of the national debt is distributional in that it involves a transfer of resources from one group to another group within the economy:
Some early proponents of fiscal policy argued that the size of the debt and of interest payments on it are not important because “ we owe it to ourselves”...There is some truth in this argument, but it should not be exaggerated. Even if all the Federal bonds were owned by Americans and all interest on the debt received by them, problems created by the existence of a large debt and by the need to transfer [billions of dollars] from the taxpayers to the bondholders would remain...
On the other hand, this does not mean that the...interest paid on the debt represents a net loss to the country...[T]hat interest go to other Americans, directly or not and that much of it is subject to Federal income taxes. President Eisenhower, who disliked deficits and debts, is reported to have said, shortly before he left the White House, that every American baby born at the time carried on its neck a tag indicating its share of the Federal debt. Perhaps it did; but it must have also borne a second tag showing its share of the value of the Federal bonds.
The article then presents some interesting views about whether the country’s ratio of debt to GDP is an appropriate indicator of the state of the economy:
Does the ratio of the debt to GNP matter? Yes, it does. Other things being equal, I would prefer a smaller rather than larger ratio...Other things are not equal. There are times and conditions calling for a deficit. Without it, unemployment may rise and the GNP may fall, thus raising, rather than lowering the debt burden.
The article concludes with a comment on how to best address the “debt problem”:
The proper solution of the debt problem lies not in tying ourselves into a financial straight-jacket, but in achieving faster growth of the GNP, a result which is, of course, desirable by itself. To the Republican and other politicians who are hell-bent on reducing the deficit and even repaying the debt, I would like to address a very short and simple question: Why? Are we suffering from an excess of purchasing power now?
As we head into the New Year and get ready to face many of the same concerns as in 2012, I think it would be a good idea to keep in mind these points.

On that note, I wish all readers of this blog a very Happy New Year!

UPDATE: The third paragraph was revised on January 12, 2013.  It originally indicated that Domar demonstrated in his 1944 paper that the ratio of deficit to GDP would equal the ratio of the fraction of GDP borrowed each year to the rate of growth of the economy.  Rather, Domar focused on the ratio of debt to GDP.  I also added a subsequent paragraph (after paragraph 3) which includes a reference to Domar's article "The Burden of the Debt: A Rejoinder" (1945).


Domar, E., "The Burden of the Debt and the National Income", American Economic Review, 34(4), December 1944

Domar, E., "The Burden of the Debt: A Rejoinder", American Economic Review, 35(3), June 1945, pp. 414-418.

Domar, E., "On Deficits and Debt", American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 52(4), October 1993, 475-478.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Behind the deficit: high interest rates and recessions

As a follow-up to my previous article, I thought I would post this chart:

Primary government balance, Source: Statistics Canada

It shows Canada's consolidated government financial balance with and without interest on the debt.  The government's primary budget balance (i.e., current revenue less spending excluding interest on debt) is a good indicator of the magnitude of fiscal policy, declining during downturns and rising when real GDP increases. (Refer to this Statistics Canada table to view the relevant data)

The chart shows a few things.  First, it shows that interest on the debt (and the Bank of Canada's high interest rate policy in the 1980s) was an important contributing factor to the size of the deficit in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Notice how the gap between the two series shrinks as we move towards the 1990s.

Second, it drives home the point that recessions have a significant impact on the size of the government budget deficit by increasing the use of automatic stabilizers (i.e., unemployment benefits and other expenditures) and reducing government tax revenues.  Note that the primary government balance reached a surplus during the late 1980s as a result of the deficit reduction efforts of the federal Tories under Mulroney and of the provinces (see arrow).  The primary government balance only declined again as a result of the recession of the early 1990s.  The end of the recession restored the primary surplus.

Third, it makes it clear (given the above) that the series of government surpluses that Canada witnessed starting in the mid- to late-90s had their roots in the fiscal policy measures of the 1980s (e.g., tax increases and spending cuts) rather than solely in the cutbacks of the 1990s under the federal Liberals and of the provinces.  This is a point that very few commentators in Canada appreciate.

But the main lesson to take away from the above is that the large budget deficit of the early 1990s was caused by the recession. It was not a consequence of 'out of control' government spending, as most are led to believe.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Austerity in Canada: Then and Now

Canada's economic accounts for the third quarter of 2012 were released last week.  They show a very weak quarter.  Real gross domestic product barely stayed positive, growing by a mere 0.1 percent (see chart 1).  The details can be found here, courtesy of Statistics Canada (click on charts to expand).

Chart 1 Real GDP growth, quarterly % change

Many reasons have been given to explain the economy's weak performance, including the slowdown in China, the fiscal and financial situation in Europe, as well as tepid growth in the US during the summer months.

Of course, as usual, no one is pointing to the fact that Canada is currently undergoing its second most important (i.e., longest and sharpest) bout of public sector austerity in half a century.  One would think that commentators would highlight this reality in their analyses.

As you can see from the chart below, real (consolidated) government expenditure (excluding transfers) has been in decline since the fourth quarter of 2010.  Historically, such a decline in real government spending has only occurred once: during the period of fiscal restraint of the mid-1990s.

Chart 2: Real government expenditures, Source: Statistics Canada and author's calculations
The reason why commentators don't think of austerity as the potential cause of the current weak performance is that Canadians live under the illusion that government spending cuts have little or no impact on the economy.  This stems from the fact that the fiscal austerity put forth during the 1990s gave Canadians (and especially their political leaders) the false impression that cuts in government spending generally help to boost the economy.

Visually, this is how most commentators interpret Canada's experience with austerity in the 1990s (note: I'm not seeking to show a correlation between the two series. I'm simply overlapping both sets of data on a common timeline):

Chart 3: The vanishing deficit and the road to surpluses, Source: Statistics Canada
The standard view holds that fiscal austerity during the 1990s helped to shrink the deficit, thus enabling Canada to run a series of budgetary surpluses throughout the early- to mid- 2000s.  Also, this view holds that fiscal austerity played a crucial role in helping Canada recover from the recession of the early 1990s and contributed to Canada's strong economic performance during the period from the mid-1990s until the financial crisis. 

The problem with this interpretation is that it completely disregards the fact that the Canadian economy during the mid-1990s was impacted by a massive increase in demand stemming from the domestic household and external sectors.  Consider the following charts showing that, as fiscal austerity was undertaken, net borrowing by both the household and external sector exploded in Canada during that period:

Chart 3: Household sector falls into net financial deficit, Source: Statistics Canada and author's calculations

Chart 4: Increased foreign demand to the rescue, Source: Statistics Canada and author's calculations

Net borrowing is the difference between a sector's total spending and income.  It is a key indicator of the demand generated by any sector of the economy. 

Supported by a much easier monetary policy and falling exchanging rate (a consequence of US President Clinton's desire to "have a strong dollar"), the increased net borrowing generated by these two sectors was effective in offsetting the decline in net borrowing of the government sector caused by fiscal austerity.

The increase in net borrowing by the household sector between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s was unprecedented.  Between 1995 and 2007, net borrowing by the household sector increased by close to 10 percent of GDP (see arrow going down).  As for net borrowing of the foreign sector, it increased by approximately five percent of GDP.  Combined, this additional demand was more than sufficient to offset the decline in demand caused by fiscal austerity.

Today, unlike in the 1990s, the household sector is seeking to reduce its level of borrowing.  And the foreign sector, due to the strength of the Canadian dollar and the weakness of the world economy as a result of global austerity, cannot be a significant source of demand at this time.*

As a result, any attempt by Canada's policymakers to balance the budget in such a context is self-defeating and actually exacerbating the problem given that it is taking away purchasing power from households and firms.  And, as we are witnessing now, it is taking its toll and slowing GDP growth as a consequence.

Economist James Tobin said it best several years ago:
Deficit reduction is not an end in itself. It's rationale is to improve productivity, real wages and living standards of our children and their children. If the measures to cut deficits actually diminish GDP raise unemployment, and reduce future-oriented activities of government, business and households, they do not achieve the goals that are their raison-d'être; rather, they retard them. This perverse result is likely if deficit reduction measures are introduced while the economy is as weak and as constrained by effective demand as it is now.
It's time to think more clearly about these issues.  What "worked" in the past need not be the appropriate course of action today.  The Canadian economy now is not like the one that existed back then.  It's time to move forward.  Trying to relive the "success" of the 1990s will only make matters worse. 


Chart 2 should be entitled "Real consolidated government expenditures (all levels of government) (millions of chained 2002 dollars)". The title and headings in charts 3, 4 and 5 are accurate.  All data comprises expenditures on goods and services, as well as on capital formation. They exclude transfers.

*  The critical point to remember is that, as I've explained before, the government deficit cannot be reduced in isolation from the other sectors of the economy.  Public sector deficits are from an accounting standpoint the equivalent of surpluses in the private sector, plus additional net imports.  The reason for this is that government deficit spending adds to the net accumulation of private holdings of households and businesses (and/or the foreign sector, where applicable).

In other words, any reduction in government spending or tax increase has a direct impact on the financial position of the private sector.  To believe otherwise is wishful thinking.  If external demand and/or increased demand from another domestic sector (households or businesses) are not high enough to offset the demand shortfall created by reduced government expenditures, continued attempts at fiscal austerity will impose additional deflationary pressure on the economy.


Tobin, J., "Thinking straight about fiscal stimulus and deficit reduction", Challenge, March 1, 1993