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Alternative Fiscal Medicine?

From Project Syndicate by Jean Pisani-Ferry:

Forget the fiscal cliff. The real issue is the fiscal mountain. According to the International Monetary Fund, the challenge of reducing the public debt/GDP ratio to a safe level is daunting for most advanced countries.

In Europe, many governments, having embarked on the path of fiscal consolidation while their economies were still weak, are now struggling with the growth consequences. As a result, debt stabilization seems to be an increasingly elusive target.

In the US, consolidation has barely begun. Because the private economy is now stronger, it may benefit from more auspicious growth conditions, but the magnitude of the fiscal retrenchment needed – more than ten percentage points of GDP, according to the IMF – is frightening. In Japan, nothing has been done thus far and the size of the required effort defies imagination.

All advanced-country governments are still officially committed to undergoing the pain of adjustment. But how many will become exhausted before implementing this program in full? Willingly or not, some may seek recourse to inflation or administrative measures aimed at trapping domestic savings into financing the state and keeping bond rates low (what economists call financial repression) – or, eventually, to outright debt restructuring.

All three unorthodox remedies have been used in past debt crises. They can be regarded as alternative forms of taxation, albeit implicit rather than explicit. In the end, they are different methods of forcing current and future generations to shoulder the burden of accumulated debt.

Is it preferable to adjust in full? Or is it advisable to blend consolidation with a dose of alternative medicine?

Here, the discussion is often couched in moral terms. Adjustment, we are told, is morally commendable, whereas the alternatives all amount to repudiating the contracts that governments entered into with bondholders.

This may be true, but governments are political animals. They care more about voters’ welfare than about moral principles. So it is worth discussing in purely economic terms what orthodox and unorthodox choices imply from the standpoints of equity and efficiency.

Start with equity. From this perspective, adjustment is hard to beat. Combining taxation and spending cuts allows the burden of adjustment to be distributed precisely. The decision belongs to the legislator. Some adjustments, like in France nowadays, weigh mostly on high-income, high-wealth individuals; others, like in Italy, weigh on pensioners. These choices were made democratically, in parliaments, as part of budget decisions.

The unorthodox techniques, however, are less nimble and more opaque. Inflation affects those with assets (cash, bonds) or incomes (wages, income from saving accounts) that are not indexed (or are under-indexed) to prices. Financial repression is basically a form of administrative taxation of domestic savings. And restructuring is a levy on bondholders’ wealth, including that of middle-class pension savers. On distributional grounds, there does not seem to be a good reason to resort to them in lieu of relying on outright taxation.

There are exceptions, though. First, governments and parliaments may be politically unable to take responsibility for distributional choices and prefer to keep them hidden. This is not a good reason, but it does happen.

Second, restructuring concentrates the burden on those holding bonds issued before a certain cut-off date. It thus draws a line between the past and the future – leading to what John Maynard Keynes called “euthanasia of the rentier.” When the burden of past turpitude is too heavy, there may be no other way to protect future generations.

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