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欧洲紧缩争论不切题

2013-05-10 15:17

欧元区危机最明显的症状是外围国家必须为公共债务支付较高的风险溢价。此外,由美国经济学家莱因哈特(Carmen Reinhart)和罗格夫(Kenneth Rogof)发表的一篇十分有影响力的论文指出,当一个国家的公共债务上升至国内生产总值(GDP)的90%以上,经济增长将急剧下降。所以解决危机的政策处方似乎很简单:紧缩。必须削减财政赤字以降低债务水平。

但有关紧缩和高公共债务水平成本的争论遗漏了一个关键点:欠外国人的公共债务不同于欠居民的债务。外国人不能投票支持增加税收或减少支出,以满足偿还债务的需求。此外,就国内债务而言,更高的利率或风险溢价只是导致国家内部的再分配(从纳税人至债券持有人)。相比之下,对欠外国人的债务而言,更高的利率将导致国家福利损失,因为政府必须转移国外资源,这通常需要结合汇率贬值和削减国内支出。

国内外债务的这个区别在欧元危机的情况下显得特别重要,因为欧元区的国家无法贬值来增加出口,服务外债。证据表明,欧元危机无关主权债务,但关乎外债。

事实上,只有那些危机前经常账赤字巨大的国家受到了影响。比利时案例很有教育性,因为比利时主权债务的风险溢价在欧元危机中大都保持适度的状态,尽管该国的债务/ GDP比率高于欧元区平均水平,在100%左右,它在没有政府的情况下运转了一年多。

一个有关国外和国内债务关键区别的例子体现在日本身上。日本迄今为止的债务/ GDP比率在经合组织国家最高。到目前为止,这个国家没有经历债务危机,利率仍然极低,在1%左右。原因很明显:日本几十年来有大量的经常帐盈余,给它足够的国内储蓄来吸收国内所有的公共债务。

这对欧洲的紧缩争论意味着什么?如果外债的重要性远远超过公共债务,需要调整的关键变量是外部赤字,而不是财政赤字。有平衡的经常账户的国家不需要任何额外的外国资本。这就是为什么尽管意大利的政治不确定性较高,巨额财政赤字延续,欧元区的风险溢价仍继续下降。边缘国家的外部赤字迅速下降才能减少对外国融资的需求。

因此,关于紧缩和公共债务高成本的争论是误导性的。首先,紧缩可能适得其反,因为如果债务水平和乘数都较大,削减财政赤字在短期内会增加债务/ GDP比率。但紧缩对外部调整永远不会弄巧成拙。相反,国内需求的下降的越大,削减的政府支出就越多,进口下降越多,经常账户改善越明显,从而最终减少风险溢价。

意大利的经验启示:前总理蒙蒂(Mario Monti)的技术官僚政府在2012年实行的增税政策对需求的影响高于预期。经济萎缩严重,以至于债务/ GDP比率实际上是增加的,而实际的赤字改善极小,因为政府收入随国内生产总值一起下降。但GDP下降的一个负作用是进口大幅下降——经常账户改善。这就是为什么,尽管最近的选举带来的不确定性引发了政治动荡,风险溢价仍持续下降,。

第二,如果外债是真正的问题,有关莱因哈特/罗格夫的结论不断升级的辩论对欧元危机而言是无关紧要的。有自己的货币的国家,比如英国——尤其是美国,可以从国外借入美元——并未面临直接融资约束。

对于这些国家,历史是否表明一旦公共债务超过GDP的90%,就会产生阀值效应至关重要。但欧元区外围国家根本没有选择:他们不得不减少赤字,因为其经济所依赖的外国资本不再可用。

但反过来也一样:只要经常账户有盈余,来自金融市场的压力就会减轻。这是有可能很快发生。那时,外围国家将恢复他们的财政主权——将能够忽略莱因哈特和罗格夫所警告的风险。

Europe’s Irrelevant Austerity Debate

2013-05-10 15:17

The most visible symptom of the crisis in the eurozone has been the high and variable risk premiums that its peripheral countries now must pay on their public debt. Moreover, an influential paper by the American economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff suggests that economic growth falls sharply when a country’s public debt rises above 90% of GDP. So the policy prescription for solving the crisis seems simple: austerity. Fiscal deficits must be cut to reduce debt levels.

But the debate about austerity and the cost of high public-debt levels misses a key point: Public debt owed to foreigners is different from debt owed to residents. Foreigners cannot vote for the higher taxes or lower expenditure needed to service the debt. Moreover, in the case of domestic debt, a higher interest rate or risk premium merely leads to more redistribution within the country (from taxpayers to bondholders). By contrast, in the case of debt owed to foreigners, higher interest rates lead to a welfare loss for the country as a whole, because the government must transfer resources abroad, which usually requires a combination of exchange-rate depreciation and a reduction in domestic expenditure.

This distinction between foreign and domestic debt is particularly important in the context of the euro crisis, because eurozone countries cannot devalue to increase exports if this is required to service foreign debt. And the evidence confirms that the euro crisis is not really about sovereign debt, but about foreign debt.

Indeed, only those countries that were running large current-account deficits before the crisis were affected by it. The case of Belgium is particularly instructive, because the risk premium on Belgian sovereign debt has remained modest throughout most of the euro crisis, although the country’s debt/GDP ratio is above the eurozone average, at around 100%, and it went without a government for more than a year.

An even starker example of the crucial difference between foreign and domestic debt is provided by Japan, which has by far the highest debt/GDP ratio among OECD countries. So far, the country has not experienced a debt crisis, and interest rates remain exceptionally low, at around 1%. The reason is obvious: Japan has run sizeable current-account surpluses for decades, giving it more than sufficient domestic savings to absorb all of its public debt at home.

What does this imply for Europe’s austerity debate? If foreign debt matters more than public debt, the key variable requiring adjustment is the external deficit, not the fiscal deficit. A country that has a balanced current account does not need any additional foreign capital. That is why risk premiums are continuing to fall in the eurozone, despite high political uncertainty in Italy and continuing large fiscal deficits elsewhere. The peripheral countries’ external deficits are falling rapidly, thus diminishing the need for foreign financing.

The debate about austerity and the high cost of public debt is thus misleading on two accounts. First, it has often been pointed out that austerity can be self-defeating, because a reduction in the fiscal deficit can lead in the short run to an increase in the debt/GDP ratio if both the debt level and the multiplier are large. But austerity can never be self-defeating for the external adjustment. On the contrary, the larger the fall in domestic demand in response to a cut in government expenditure, the more imports will fall and the stronger the improvement in the current account – and thus ultimately the reduction in the risk premium – will be.

Italy’s experience is enlightening: the large tax increases implemented by former Prime Minister Mario Monti’s technocratic government in 2012 had a higher-than-expected impact on demand. The economy is contracting so much that the debt/GDP ratio is actually increasing, and the actual deficit is improving only marginally, because government revenues are falling along with GDP. But a side effect of the fall in GDP is a strong decline in imports – and thus a strong improvement in the current account, which is why the risk premium continues to fall, despite the political turmoil unleashed by the country’s inconclusive recent election.

Second, if foreign debt is the real problem, the escalating debate about the Reinhart/Rogoff results is irrelevant for the euro crisis. Countries that have their own currency, like the United Kingdom – and especially the United States, which can borrow from foreigners in dollars – do not face a direct financing constraint.

For these countries, it matters whether history suggests that there is a strong threshold effect once public debt exceeds 90% of GDP. But the eurozone’s peripheral countries simply did not have a choice: they had to reduce their deficits, because the foreign capital on which their economies were so dependent was no longer available.

But the reverse is also true: as soon as the current account swings to surplus, the pressure from financial markets abates. This is likely to happen soon. At this point, peripheral countries will regain their fiscal sovereignty – and will be able to ignore Reinhart and Rogoff’s warning at their own risk.

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