Even the most simple understandings are lost in the public debate about budget deficits and public debt. The Flat Earth Theorists who whip up deficit hysteria each day like to stun people with large numbers. They produce debt clocks that relentlessly tick over and try to get us to believe that impending doom is upon us. But if we just take a deep breath and think the situation through we would see that the ticking debt clock is really just a measure of the portion of non-government wealth embodied in public debt. We would then learn that budget deficits are just the mirror image of non-government savings. Saving is usually considered to be something we should aim for. Increased wealth is also something we usually aspire to. So the increasing deficits and increased debt outstanding is, in fact, beneficial to the private sector (overall). Once we understand that then the deficit hysteria becomes transparently ideological. These characters just hate government and want to get their greedy hands on more of the real pie.
I thought this article – The national debt is money the government owes us – which appeared in the UK Guardian (June 17, 2010) was interesting. If more people understood the argument that the journalist (Paul Segal) is making then the Flat Earth Theorists would starve for oxygen.
Politicians on the right love to scare us. George Osborne, in his Mansion House speech cited “fears” over government solvency and sovereign debt crises. David Cameron has declared the fiscal deficit a “threat” to “our whole way of life,” and “a clear and present danger to the British economy”. This is nonsense. The threat we face is ideologically driven cuts that risk causing a double-dip recession.
The fiscal deficit seems scary because it is debt. Cameron argues that within five years the national debt will rise to “some £22,000 for every man, woman and child in the country”. This may be true, but what he doesn’t tell us is that it is money the government owes to us – not money that we owe to anyone else. That’s right: 80% of our government debt is owed to the British people. What is called “national debt” is our own savings, looked at from the other side of the balance sheet.
People get very confused about the concept of national saving. They assume that saving is spending less than you earn and then apply that to budget surpluses and conclude that the surpluses add to national saving. But this view is erroneous. A sovereign government does not save. What sense does it make to say that the government is saving in the currency that it issues? Households save to increase their capacity to spend in the future. How can this apply to the issuer of the currency who can spend at any time it chooses?
As a matter of national accounting, a government budget deficit adds net financial assets (adding to non government savings) available to the private sector and a budget surplus has the opposite effect. The last point requires further explanation as it is crucial to understanding the basis of modern money macroeconomics.
While typically obfuscated in standard textbook treatments, at the heart of national income accounting is an identity – the government deficit (surplus) equals the non-government surplus (deficit). The only entity that can provide the non-government sector with net financial assets (net savings denominated in the currency of issue) and thereby simultaneously accommodate any net desire to save (financial assets) and thus eliminate unemployment is the currency monopolist – the government.
It does this by net spending – that is, running deficits. Additionally, and contrary to mainstream rhetoric, yet ironically, necessarily consistent with national income accounting, the systematic pursuit of government budget surpluses is dollar-for-dollar manifested as declines in non-government savings.
A simple example helps reinforce these points. Suppose the economy is populated by two people, one being government and the other deemed to be the private (non-government) sector. We abstract from the distinction between the external and private domestic sectors here – which mostly only involved distributional considerations anyway.
If the government runs a balanced budget (spends 100 dollars and taxes 100 dollars) then private accumulation of fiat currency (savings) is zero in that period and the private budget is also balanced.
Say the government spends 120 and taxes remain at 100, then private saving is 20 dollars which can accumulate as financial assets. In the first instance, they would be sitting as a 20 dollar bank deposit have been created by the government to cover its additional expenses. The government deficit of 20 is exactly the private savings of 20.
If the government continued in this vein, accumulated private savings would equal the cumulative budget deficits. The government may decide to issue an interest-bearing bond to encourage saving but operationally it does not have to do this to finance its deficit. If the savers transfer their deposits into bonds their overall saving is not altered and it has no implications for the government’s capacity to spend. It has the advantage for savers that they now also enjoy an income flow from their saving.
However, should government decide to run a surplus (say spend 80 and tax 100) then the private sector would owe the government a net tax payment of 20 dollars and would need to sell something back to the government to get the needed funds. The result is the government generally buys back some bonds it had previously sold. The net funding needs of the non-government sector automatically elicit this correct response from government via interest rate signals. Either way accumulated private saving is reduced dollar-for-dollar when there is a government surplus.
So it is clear that the government surplus has two negative effects for the private sector: (a) the stock of financial assets (money or bonds) held by the private sector, which represents its wealth, falls; and (b) private disposable income also falls in line with the net taxation impost.
Some may retort that government bond purchases provide the private wealth-holder with cash. That is true but the liquidation of wealth is driven by the shortage of cash in the private sector arising from tax demands exceeding income. The cash from the bond sales pays the Government’s net tax bill. The result is exactly the same when expanding this example by allowing for private income generation and a banking sector.
From the example above, and further recognising that currency plus reserves (the monetary base) plus outstanding government securities constitutes net financial assets of the non-government sector, the fact that the non-government sector is dependent on the government to provide funds for both its desired net savings and payment of taxes to the government becomes a matter of accounting.
This understanding reinforces why the pursuit of government budget surpluses will be contractionary. Pursuing budget surpluses is necessarily equivalent to the pursuit of non-government sector deficits. They are two sides of the same coin.
The decreasing levels of net savings financing the government surplus increasingly leverage the private sector and the deteriorating debt to income ratios will eventually see the system succumb to ongoing demand-draining fiscal drag through a slow-down in real activity.
Once we understand the accounting relationships it is easy to reject the argument that budget surpluses represents “public saving”, which can be used to fund future public expenditure. Public surpluses do not create a cache of money that can be spent later. National governments spend by crediting a reserve account in the banking system. The credits do not “come from anywhere”, as, for example, gold coins would have had to come from somewhere. It is accounted for but that is a different issue. Likewise, payments to government reduce reserve balances. Those payments do not “go anywhere” but are merely accounted for.
There is an elaborate institutional structure in place to obsfucate the true nature of these transactions. But in an accounting sense, when there is a budget surplus, then base money and/or private wealth is destroyed. The opposite is the case for budget deficits.
Please read the Deficit spending 101 blogs for more background discussion on this point.