The Economist Tackles The Long Term Debt Problem

A worthwhile read at the Economist concerning the accumulation of sovereign debt. Eventually, the problem will have to be confronted. For now, we’ll just spend money on recovery, health care, education, politically motivated corporate bailouts and whatever other feel good program we meet on the road.

All told the outlook is bleak. In a few countries, the financial crisis has badly damaged the public finances. Elsewhere it has accelerated a chronic age-related deterioration. Everywhere the short-term fiscal pain is much smaller than the long-term mess that lies ahead. Unless belts are tightened by several notches, real interest rates are sure to rise, as will the risk premiums on many governments’ debt. Economic growth will suffer and sovereign-debt crises will become more likely.

Somehow, governments have to avoid such a catastrophe without killing the recovery by tightening policy too soon. Japan made that mistake when concerns about its growing public debt led its government to increase the consumption tax in 1997, which helped to send the economy back into recession. Yet doing nothing could have much the same effect, because investors’ fears about fiscal sustainability will push up bond yields, which also could stifle the recovery.

The best way out is to tackle the costs of ageing head-on by, for instance, raising retirement ages further. That would brighten the medium-term fiscal outlook without damaging demand now. Broadly, spending cuts should be preferred to tax increases. And rather than raise tax rates, governments would do better to improve their tax codes, broadening the base and eliminating distortive loopholes (such as preferential treatment of housing). Other priorities will vary from one country to the next. But after today’s borrowing binge, doing nothing is no longer an option.

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