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The coming explosion in natural debt is a serious risk to the economy

The coming explosion in natural debt is a serious risk to the economy

Martin Feldstein of Harvard is an economist who should always be taken seriously. Writing in 1997 about the forthcoming introduction of the euro, for example, he argued that “the adverse economic effects of a single currency on unemployment would outweigh any potential gains from trade flows”. He went on to predict that the euro was likely to lead to increased conflicts within Europe. Looking at the current state of the continent, his forecasts appear spot on.

In the latest issue of the American Economic Review, he reminds us of the crucial importance of reducing government deficits. The Brexit referendum has essentially frozen David Cameron’s government from taking almost any action at all. But despite a convincing General Election victory, the drive to cut the deficit was already slowing down. In particular, the government appears to have lost its nerve in terms of cutting public expenditure. At the slightest sign of protest or opposition, it backs down.

Feldstein’s paper on the American experience should spur Cameron to think again. Feldstein begins with an optimistic view of the US economy. Since the 1970s, the unemployment rate has only briefly dipped below 5 per cent, its current level, so America effectively is back at full employment. Inflation remains low, despite employment rising by 14m since 2010. Economic growth is limited by the absence of excess capacity rather than by demand.

In the longer term, the most serious risk to the American economy, Feldstein believes, is the explosive growth of national debt as a percentage of GDP which will happen unless there are serious measures taken to cut spending. The public sector deficit is the difference between income from taxation and public spending in any given year, and a deficit adds to the stock of debt which is outstanding.

Feldstein points out that the debt to GDP ratio has risen from less than 40 per cent 10 years ago to 75 per cent now. The comparable numbers in the UK are from 35 to 85 per cent. He suggests that a very effective way of controlling future increases is to raise the retirement age even more. He has a neat suggestion to counter legitimate worries that life expectancy has gone up more for the better off than it has for the poor. Just link the retirement age to lifetime earnings. The lower they are, the earlier you can give up work.

The shape of the recovery in the United States suggests that there is little to fear from following Feldstein’s arguments and really getting to grips with public expenditure. The trough of the recession was in 2009. By 2015, GDP in real terms had increased by 13.3 per cent. Despite scare stories that growth has been driven by unsustainable consumer spending, this rose at a virtually identical rate, by 13.9 per cent. Corporate investment, in contrast, has shot up by 51 per cent. And current public spending has fallen by 7.5 per cent.

Despite siren voices such as those of junior doctors, the UK government should keep its nerve too. The American experience shows that cutting public spending can expand the economy.

As published in City AM on Wednesday 1st June 2016

Image: National Debt Clock by Nick Webb licensed under CC BY 2.0

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