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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How Should the Government Debt be Financed?

Andy Harless joins Rajiv Sethi in calling for more discussion about how the government debt is financed:

The Treasury’s Monetary Policy, by Andy Harless: ...Treasury ... is now ... financing more of its debt long-term. If you’re worried (as I am) about the persistence of a weak and potentially deflationary economic environment, then you should be critical of the Treasury’s policy. By increasing its maturities the Treasury is essentially following a tight-money policy exactly when a loose-money policy is needed.
The Treasury, of course, has its reasons. Officials expect interest rates to rise over the next several years and would like to lock in today’s low rates, to limit how much it will cost to service the national debt over a longer horizon. I’m skeptical, however, of the assumptions underlying these reasons.

You might argue that it’s a matter of risk. When the Treasury locks in today’s low interest rates, it may not end up paying less (since it gives up even lower short-term rates), but it makes the payments more predictable. Even if the Treasury is likely to end up paying more, the hedge is worth the price, because the Treasury receives some insurance for the worst case, where rates rise more than expected.

But are rising interest rates really the worst case?
Interest rates will rise when and if the economic recovery gains enough speed and traction to give the Fed and bond markets reasonable confidence in its eventual convergence toward our potential growth path. As an ordinary citizen, that’s not an outcome against which I would feel a need to hedge. I don’t want to buy insurance against good news. I’d rather hedge against the opposite outcome, where the recovery peters out and interest rates fall.

The US economy has been knocked far off its potential growth path, and it will take fairly rapid growth, for a fairly long period of time, to get back to it. (Either that, or we’ll remain so far off the path for so long that potential will be significantly reduced, in which case we likely have many of years of low interest rates ahead of us before we get to that point.) With rapid and persistent growth, federal revenues will rise, government “bailout” investments will perform well, benefit payments will decline, and the primary federal deficit will fall. Because of higher interest rates, the government will be paying more to service its outstanding debt, but because of an improving economy the government will be accumulating less new debt, compared to the alternative case. So it’s not clear to me that rising rates would be a “worst case” even for Treasury finances, let alone for the general national interest.

It is also argued that, by increasing the maturity of its debt, the Treasury is reducing the risk of default, thereby improving its credit profile and allowing it to finance at lower interest rates than otherwise. If that’s true, I’m not sure it’s a good thing. When the private sector is having such difficulties as it has now, wouldn’t it be better to make Treasury securities more risky and thereby encourage people to put their money in private sector assets instead?

In any case, I’m not sure it’s even true. For Treasury investors, inflation risk is much more important than credit risk. By refusing to be kept on a short leash, the Treasury is increasing the future incentive for the US to “inflate away” its debts. That might make Treasury securities less attractive rather than more so. Of course, as I said, making Treasury securities less attractive wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, since it would help the private sector: but if the Treasury does so by issuing more long-term securities, the benefit gets lost, because the Treasury is then also competing with the private sector for funds.

Be that as it may, I know I’m not going to convince everyone about the specific policy that I think the Treasury should follow. I hope, however, that I have at least convinced some readers that, in today’s environment, the decision is a macroeconomically important one that deserves a great deal more attention than it has gotten. I second Rajiv Sethi..., who finds it “a bit surprising that while the size of the deficit is a topic of endless controversy, there is such little debate about the manner in which the deficit is financed.”

    Posted by on Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 12:06 AM in Budget Deficit, Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (61)

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