Deficits, debt and deflation after the pandemic

6 July 2020 by Michael Roberts

The Great Lockdown enforced by the Covid-19 pandemic has driven governments across the globe to apply extensive bailout and fiscal stimulus programmes. On average, these measures of wage supplements, furlough payments, loans and grants to firms; and emergency spending on health and other public services, have been paid for by extra government spending equivalent to an average of around 5-6% of GDP with a similar amount on top from loan guarantees and other credit support for banks and companies. That’s at least twice as large as the fiscal and monetary stimulus and bailout packages delivered during the Great Recession of 2008-9.

Globally, the IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
forecasts that general government budget deficits (ie where tax revenues fall short of government spending) will reach 10% of GDP GDP
Gross Domestic Product
Gross Domestic Product is an aggregate measure of total production within a given territory equal to the sum of the gross values added. The measure is notoriously incomplete; for example it does not take into account any activity that does not enter into a commercial exchange. The GDP takes into account both the production of goods and the production of services. Economic growth is defined as the variation of the GDP from one period to another.
in 2020, up from 3.7% in 2019. In the advanced capitalist economies, the deficit will be 10.7%, more than three times larger than in 2019. The US government will have a 15.4% of GDP deficit.

As a result, public sector debt levels are expected to exceed anything reached in the last 150 years – including after WW1 and WW2. The public sector debt ratio in 2020 will reach 122% of GDP in the advanced capitalist economies and 62% in the so-called emerging economies.

Everybody, whether governments, investors or economists, agree that there was no alternative but to expand public spending during the Great Lockdown to avoid or ameliorate the catastrophe of the global economy coming to a total halt. But as the lockdowns end (whether the pandemic is over or not), the question is whether this increased government spending can be allowed to continue and whether public sector debt levels must eventually be curbed and reduced.

After the end of the Great Recession, the predominant view among governments and economists alike was that public debt levels were too high and would damage economic growth rates and/or even engender a further financial crisis. Top economists like Rogoff and Reinhart argued that there was empirical evidence over centuries that showed when public debt ratios were above 90% of GDP, the probability of a financial crash was very high. This evidence was disputed at the time, but even so, it was generally held that measures to control public spending and raise taxes so that budget deficits were reduced and even eliminated to bring debt levels down were necessary to ensure future sustainable economic growth. This ‘Austerian’ view dominated and the apparently alternative Keynesian view that in a slump ‘deficits and debt don’t matter’ was rejected, sometimes even by Keynesians. When the Greek government faced disaster during the euro debt crisis of 2012-15, the powers that be were merciless in their view that there was no alternative.

But this time round, at least, things are different. Governments, on the whole, do not talk about getting public sector finances ‘under control’ and economists on the whole seem comfortable with governments running deficits far into the future even if it means rising public sector debt levels.

As former Goldman Sachs chief economist, and hedge fund manager Gavyn Davies recently put it:Even more notable has been the unanimity among macroeconomists that massive fiscal and monetary stimulus is the appropriate response to a “wartime” economic emergency. Almost no one seriously disputes that policy should be doing “whatever it takes” to overcome the shock from the virus. This agreement reflects a key conclusion from public finance theory: that higher government debt Government debt The total outstanding debt of the State, local authorities, publicly owned companies and organs of social security. is the correct shock absorber for the private sector in the face of unpredictable, temporary economic crises. It avoids the distortions that would follow the big variations in marginal tax rates that would otherwise be needed to finance a surge in public spending over a short period.” So the public sector is there to bail out the private (capitalist) sector when it goes into ‘unpredictable, temporary crisis’.

Davies goes on: “Most New Keynesian economists, including Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers, believe high debt levels will not in themselves be a problem for advanced economies. They even suggest further rises in debt would be desirable, as that would help reverse the trend towards secular stagnation in Europe and the US.” A key reason for their optimism is that the annual cost of servicing the debt will be below the nominal growth rate in the economy and the central banks seem set to keep it there.

Indeed, central bank Central Bank The establishment which in a given State is in charge of issuing bank notes and controlling the volume of currency and credit. In France, it is the Banque de France which assumes this role under the auspices of the European Central Bank (see ECB) while in the UK it is the Bank of England.

rates are near zero or even below and longer-term bond Bond A bond is a stake in a debt issued by a company or governmental body. The holder of the bond, the creditor, is entitled to interest and reimbursement of the principal. If the company is listed, the holder can also sell the bond on a stock-exchange. yields are at historic lows. So, if the interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. cost of the government debt keeps below the growth rate, the debt/gross domestic product ratio will eventually stabilise. And as economic growth picks up, tax revenues will come through, enabling the ‘primary balance Balance End of year statement of a company’s assets (what the company possesses) and liabilities (what it owes). In other words, the assets provide information about how the funds collected by the company have been used; and the liabilities, about the origins of those funds. ’ (tax minus non-interest spending) to rise. Then central banks can gradually allow interest rates Interest rates When A lends money to B, B repays the amount lent by A (the capital) as well as a supplementary sum known as interest, so that A has an interest in agreeing to this financial operation. The interest is determined by the interest rate, which may be high or low. To take a very simple example: if A borrows 100 million dollars for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 5%, the first year he will repay a tenth of the capital initially borrowed (10 million dollars) plus 5% of the capital owed, i.e. 5 million dollars, that is a total of 15 million dollars. In the second year, he will again repay 10% of the capital borrowed, but the 5% now only applies to the remaining 90 million dollars still due, i.e. 4.5 million dollars, or a total of 14.5 million dollars. And so on, until the tenth year when he will repay the last 10 million dollars, plus 5% of that remaining 10 million dollars, i.e. 0.5 million dollars, giving a total of 10.5 million dollars. Over 10 years, the total amount repaid will come to 127.5 million dollars. The repayment of the capital is not usually made in equal instalments. In the initial years, the repayment concerns mainly the interest, and the proportion of capital repaid increases over the years. In this case, if repayments are stopped, the capital still due is higher…

The nominal interest rate is the rate at which the loan is contracted. The real interest rate is the nominal rate reduced by the rate of inflation.
to rise towards more ‘normal levels’. And the debt could be managed without a crisis.

The more extreme Keynesian position that is now popular is that even managing debt levels does not matter. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reckons that, as long as there is ‘slack’ in the capitalist economy ie. unemployment, governments can spend indefinitely and central banks can support them by ‘printing money’ without any risk of default or financial collapse.

However, it may not be as simple as that. Calculating whether debt service Debt service The sum of the interests and the amortization of the capital borrowed. is sustainable involves several key numbers: 1) the level of debt, 2) average interest rate on the debt, 3) fiscal deficit (which adds to the debt), 4) the size and growth of public expenditure, and 5) expansion rate of the economy. Sustainability of public debt service then depends on two numbers, the fiscal deficit and the initial size of the public debt.

If government spending outside covering interest costs on existing debt continues to rise faster than tax revenues, then this ‘primary deficit’ will continually add to total public debt. This means that the interest cost of that debt will rise even if the rate of interest is very low. Already, the interest cost in government budgets in the major economies has reached 10% of tax revenues, even though interest rates have fallen. This cost is gradually eating into current spending on welfare, public sector investments and public services.

In the advanced economies, the maturity of public debt (the period before repayment of bonds is required) is about 7 years on average (it’s way higher in the UK). The longer the maturity, the less the impact of increased deficits and debt on debt servicing.

So it’s the growth constraint that is the main factor making public sector debt levels matter. ‘Excessive debt’ means government debt that is so high that it eats into corporate profitability through higher taxes on business, less subsidies to business, higher inflation Inflation The cumulated rise of prices as a whole (e.g. a rise in the price of petroleum, eventually leading to a rise in salaries, then to the rise of other prices, etc.). Inflation implies a fall in the value of money since, as time goes by, larger sums are required to purchase particular items. This is the reason why corporate-driven policies seek to keep inflation down. costs and higher interest rates for borrowing across the board. So government spending, Keynesian-style, can only be a substitute for failing private investment and consumption for a short while. Ultimately, it is a burden on capitalism, not its saviour. That is why it must be reduced. If profitability of the capitalist sector remains low, and in the G7 average profitability on capital is at an all-time low, then investment and GDP growth will be weak. And the ‘productivity of debt’ will continue to fall.

Governments could just print money to pay for their debts (they have that unique power as MMT argues), but that would eventually mean devaluing the currency used to pay for things. It is something that the US has found with its external deficits. As a result, the buying value of the dollar has fallen over the last 30 years by over 25%.

Similarly, if governments print money to pay for their debts at home, they will eventually drive up inflation and devalue wages and savings. The ‘evil’ of inflation is even admitted by MMT, if only when full employment is reached and the ‘slack’ in the economy disappears. Governments can borrow and central banks can print money to finance the present public expenditures. However, these also involve taking on future risks. As Stephanie Kelton put it in her new book, The Deficit Myth: “Can we just print our way to prosperity? Absolutely not! MMT is not a free lunch. There are very real limits, and failing to identify—and respect—those limits could bring great harm. MMT is about distinguishing the real limits from the self-imposed constraints that we have the power to change.”(Kelton 2020, p. 37).

But the issue of debt, post-COVID is not only, or even mainly, about public debt; it is corporate debt that really matters. The pandemic slump began with a ‘supply shock’ as major sectors of the economy were locked down; then it became a ‘demand shock’ as households stopped spending and companies stopped investing; but a third leg of the crisis impends: a financial shock.

Corporate debt levels globally were already at record highs before the pandemic crisis.

Corporate sector ‘delinquencies’ (failing to meet debt repayments on time) and bankruptcies are rising. A whole layer of ‘zombie companies’ (where debt interest is not covered by profits) that this blog has talked about before on several occasions are likely to go bust before ‘normality’ is restored. And if there is any rise in interest rates, that trickle could turn into a flood and then an avalanche that takes down others and the banking system.

The amount of debt classified as distressed in the U.S. has surged 161% in just the last two months to more than half a trillion dollars. In April, corporate borrowers defaulted on $35.7 billion of bonds and loans, the fifth-largest monthly volume on record, according JPMorgan Chase & Co. And so far in 2020, the pace of corporate bankruptcy filings in the U.S. has already surpassed every year since 2009, the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Bloomberg data show.

So the levels of both public and corporate sector debt do matter. If governments go on raising public spending and budget deficits, it will squeeze the capitalist sector by sucking up all the demand for debt, while increasing the share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. of unproductive expenditure at the expense of public services and investment. If governments fund such spending through central bank ‘monetary financing’, the risk of inflation will return.

Why? The Japanese government has run permanent budget deficits since the 1990s and the government debt ratio will be over 250% of GDP this year. The Bank of Japan owns most of the new government debt outstanding, assets equivalent to 75% of GDP. But Japan has no inflation in the prices of goods and services. If anything, there is deflation. So why should budget deficits and rising debt lead to inflation?

The causes of inflation require a whole book on their own. The traditional mainstream theories fall into two categories: a monetary theory; changes in the quantity of money relative to output sets the rate of inflation; or that inflation of prices is caused by changes in the cost of production (wages, raw materials, oil prices etc). Neither of these is convincing as a theory (a future post here).

There is a massive rise in the quantity of money in economies, at the moment: money supply as represented by deposits in banks (M2) is up 25% yoy. But prices of goods and services are hardly rising – indeed, by year-end the consumer inflation rate in the US could be negative for the first time since the Great Recession and possibly down by the largest annual reduction since 1955.

The reason is obvious: consumer spending and capitalist investment is down hugely. Much of the money and government handouts is not going into spending or investment but into paying down debts or hoarding by companies. This is what happened in Japan. Indeed, what we find is that there has been a significant decline in the velocity of money since the early 2000s. The velocity of money measures the stock of money relative to nominal GDP – and it’s been falling. This is a good measure of hoarding money.

The trend matches the downturn in the rate of profit Profit The positive gain yielded from a company’s activity. Net profit is profit after tax. Distributable profit is the part of the net profit which can be distributed to the shareholders. of capital and consumer price inflation. As profitability of investing in productive assets fell, investment growth slowed. Companies instead invested in financial assets (fictitious capital) or hoarded cash (the large companies). Interest rates and inflation fell, while stock markets boomed. And this is what is happening now. Inflation is non-existent because new value is not being created and so profits and wages are falling even faster than money supply can be injected.

However, that situation will change when the lockdowns ease over the next year (whatever the virus does). Then profits and wages will rise (not to the same levels as before, but still up). If central banks pump in yet more money and credit, then prices will rise because economic growth will remain weak. Demand (money) will exceed supply (new value). The hoarding effect will dissipate and prices will jump.

One estimate for inflation based on the mainstream quantity theory of moneysuggests inflation rates could jump to 4-6% if central banks go on printing money. My own estimate would suggest inflation would be around 3-4% next year (unpublished research). Inflation is bad news for labour because it will eat into real incomes, already stunned by the slump. It’s good news for companies as they try to hike prices to restore profits, but it’s bad news for the financial sector and bond investors as their real gains will be reduced.

Next year, the weight of both public and corporate debt will press down on economic recovery, while inflation will rise, putting upward pressure on interest rates. That’s a recipe for corporate bankruptcies and a financial crisis, alongside ‘stagflating’ economies, similar to the 1970s.

Michael Roberts

worked in the City of London as an economist for over 40 years. He has closely observed the machinations of global capitalism from within the dragon’s den. At the same time, he was a political activist in the labour movement for decades. Since retiring, he has written several books. The Great Recession – a Marxist view (2009); The Long Depression (2016); Marx 200: a review of Marx’s economics (2018): and jointly with Guglielmo Carchedi as editors of World in Crisis (2018). He has published numerous papers in various academic economic journals and articles in leftist publications.
He blogs at


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