Thoughts From Across the Atlantic

Is this Time Different for the US?

In a new review of Reinhart and Rogoff’s book, This Time is Different, economic historian Alan Taylor points out that ignoring the historical relationship between government debt and financial crises can be costly.  It can lead to a kind of wishful thinking that governments can borrow any amount of money without producing any adverse economic consequences. This Panglossian view of government debt is contradicted by the historical data compiled and analyzed by Reinhart and Rogoff  in their well-received book. Subsequent work by Taylor and co-authors has extended the analysis to private debt. They have shown that the timing and magnitude of business cycles are related to the volume of private debt.  Wishful thinking about government debt is particularly relevant to the current debt problems facing the U.S. government.

Resulting empirical literature on debt thresholds

The historical work by Reinhart and Rogoff has stimulated a more technical empirical literature seeking to estimate a threshold or tipping point for government debt relative to GDP beyond which adverse effects on economic growth appear (Grennes 2013). A common result is that a threshold for gross government debt is in the neighborhood of 80% of GDP, and the U.S. and many European countries now exceed this ratio. Beginning at debt ratios below the threshold, small increases in debt have no harmful economic effects, but increases above the threshold decrease the rate of real GDP growth.

Not involved in a world war, just consuming

The current U.S. government debt level relative to GDP of over 100% is unprecedented in peacetime history. For over 200 years U.S. policymakers produced debt ratios that fluctuated without a trend. Debt ratios increased during wars and recessions decreased during peacetime and periods of rapid economic growth. However, fiscal policy has changed since 2001 (Grennes, Thornton), and policymakers seem unwilling to make difficult choices about spending and taxing that would keep debt under control.

This would be somewhat less worrying, if the government during the crisis had embarked on a large-scale investment program thereby substantially improving the quality of the U.S. infrastructure. However, as we mentioned in an earlier blog post (see” The U.S. Is Sliding Down an Investment Slope”), the weight of investment in GDP in the U.S. has been declining since the onset of the financial crisis and the low ratio of public infrastructure investment to GDP is particularly worrying. Deficit spending has propped up current consumption (and imports) rather than laid solid fundamentals for future growth. At the same time the U.S. infrastructure liability keeps growing alongside with the pile of debt.

Deteriorating quality of U.S. fiscal institutions

The quality of U.S. fiscal institutions has deteriorated. Recent actions by Congress and Presidents indicate no willingness to recognize limits to debt and to engage in fundamental fiscal reform. They have reacted to each deadline, such as the recent fiscal cliff, by taking minimal action and delaying fundamental reform that would stabilize the debt ratio.  The fiscal cliff problem was addressed by delaying decisions about cutting spending for two more months. The legislation intended to demonstrate fiscal discipline added insult to injury by including tax breaks to various industries, including NASCAR racing tracks, which will increase future fiscal deficits.

As a result of fiscal procrastination, the debt gets larger and the government limps on until it faces the next fiscal deadline. In the words of President Obama:  “We’ve got to stop lurching from crisis to crisis to crisis.”  The Congressional debt limit has already been reached, and the sequestration will be reached in March. This awkward fiscal process cannot contribute to either short-run or long-run stabilization of the economy. The proposal for the Treasury to produce a trillion dollar coin is a gimmick that represents the extreme desperation of some members of Congress.

The global reserve currency status as a resource curse

Contrary to many European countries, the U.S. has so far not been subject to market discipline in the form of rising interest rates, largely due to the status of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency. Given the opposition in some euro zone countries, most notably Germany, against common euro zone debt issuance, this status is unlikely to be challenged in the medium term. However, similarly as the abundance of natural resources in some countries in the past has led to a “resource curse” that has hampered long-term development, abundance of cheap funding to finance government deficit today might have an adverse impact on the future economic growth in the US.


Historical evidence on debt suggests that procrastination on the debt issue is wishful thinking by the fiscal authorities. The global reserve currency status of the dollar has given the U.S. government additional time to address its fiscal challenges. However, it might also have resulted in a false sense that this time is different for the United States.


Grennes, Thomas. 2013. “The Deteriorating Quality of Fiscal Institutions: U.S. and EU”. Cato Journal, forthcoming.

Klein, Ezra. 2013. “Treasury: We Won’t Mint a Platinum Coin to Sidestep the Debt Ceiling.” Washington Post, January 12

Reinhart, Carmen, and Kenneth Rogoff.  2009. “This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.” Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, Alan M. 2012.”Global Financial Stability and the Lessons of History”. Journal of Economic Literature. December.

Thornton, Daniel. 2012. “The U.S. Deficit/Debt Problem: a Longer-Run Perspective”. Federal Reserve Bank of St.Louis Review. November/December.

29 Responses to “Is this Time Different for the US?”

David WishartJanuary 17th, 2013 at 4:24 pm

We're not on a gold standard anymore, and country's like the U.S., Canada, Japan and the UK have their own free-floating exchange rate and do not borrow in foreign currencies. These governments can't be forced in to default. The higher their debts become, the larger the holdings of financial assets within the foreign and private sectors. See Japan. These debts are repaid in the currency issued by each country's sovereign government. Furthermore, interest rates are a policy variable determined by the Central Bank and is subject to the Treasury's willingness to sell bonds. If the Treasury chose to stop issuing debt and pay for all spending with currency issuance, it would cause reserves to accumulate in the private banking system and drive short term rates to zero. Which means as a matter of policy can always keep interest rates lower than the rate of economic growth. If inflation becomes an issue after the economy hits full capacity and full employment then government can raise taxes or they can sell bonds to withdraw purchasing power from the private sector.

David WishartJanuary 17th, 2013 at 4:24 pm

The problem facing the U.S. and other major developed countries at the moment is not too much debt, it's too little economic growth. Deficits haven't been large enough, tax cuts too small and investment spending too low to create a meaningful rebound as the private sector pays off its big debt overhang.

BurkJanuary 17th, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Sorry – not applicable. The fiat currency world is fundamentally different from the world R&R study, which is like the Euro world- where countries owe money in currency (like gold or silver) that they can not create and do not float internationally. Countries that owe that kind of money in large amounts are indeed screwed.

Look at Japan. They carry a debt of about 200% of GDP, and .. no problems. What they need is a bit more spending and debt to finally put their deflation to bed. Neoliberals and deficit hawks (and ratings agencies) have been crying wolf there forever, and what has been the result? Nothing.

The criteria in a fiat currency economy are different, revolving around savings desires and inflation. Indeed, they would be just as well off issuing the currency and not issuing the debt at all- just spending, clean and simple… in response to the macroeconomic situation.

ThomasGrennesJanuary 17th, 2013 at 5:14 pm

The data studied by Reinhart and Rogoff are not limited to the gold standard period. They
include the entire post-Bretton Woods period (since 1974) during which most countries have had floating rates and fiat money. The U.S. dollar has had no connection to gold for

ThomasGrennesJanuary 17th, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Again the Reinhart/Rogoff sample includes fiat currency and floating exchange rates.
Japan has had a major economic problem: almost no economic growth for an extended period.

David WishartJanuary 18th, 2013 at 8:39 am

I've read Reinhart and Rogoff's book so I'm aware of the time periods it covers. That's the value of the massive database they've generated, to give us a view of debt through the centuries.

In my opinion they could have done a better job of stressing the non-equivalence of private sector and government sector debt. More specifically that currency issuer debt is very, very different than currency user debt. They do make the distinction of a fiat currency issuer borrowing in a foreign currency, which has a much higher probability of default than one who only issues debt in their own currency.

Japan has anemic growth not because of high government debts, but because of the deflation of giant private sector debt bubble from the late 1980s. After this burst, private sector debt/GDP has been in decline for two decades. But because of an absence of fiscal spending to offset the entire decline in private spending, you have a period of stagnant or declining nominal GDP.

ThomasGrennesJanuary 18th, 2013 at 10:07 am

Lack of growth has been crucial for Japan. Traditionally, Japan and the U.S. have lowered their debt ratios by faster growth, but rapid growth is not occurring now in
either country. One possible explanation is that debt levels beyond the threshold are
contributing to slower growth. I don't see how one can rule out that hypothesis merely by assertion.

I agree that it is useful to separate public and private debt, although they do interact at times. In the housing bubble, what was initially private mortgage-related debt
became public debt in countries where governments guaranteed private debt.

ThomasGrennesJanuary 18th, 2013 at 10:14 am

The Reinhart-Rogoff data includes many time periods when countries had fiat currency.
One prominent example is the United States during and after the Civil War. The dollar was
declared inconvertible into gold and it floated against all the gold standard countries. U.S.
inflation accelerated during this Greenback Period and the dollar depreciated. The U.S. did not return to the gold standard and fixed exchange rate until the 1870s.

David WishartJanuary 18th, 2013 at 12:00 pm

I'd argue that the explanation is that growth is slow because of an increased desire by the private sector to save and deleverage. There are 3 sectors in the economy, private domestic, government domestic and foreign sector and the balance of assets and liabilities between the 3 sums out to zero. So if one group moves in to a surplus position, another group moves in to a deficit. In Japan's case, the large private domestic surplus (a combo of paying off debt and accumulating financial assets) is offset by a combination of a trade surplus (capital account deficit) and government deficit. The states on the other hand has a trade deficit, capital account surplus, so between that and the private sector moving from a big deficit to surplus position, you get a large government deficit. Arguably though it's not large enough because the private sector still hasn't hit its desired level of debt repayment and savings.

I think that a country being in a position beyond the threshold is out of its control for the most part and is a result of domestic factors driven by the private sector's desire to on net save or borrow.

ThomasGrennesJanuary 18th, 2013 at 8:42 pm

I agree that interaction across sectors is important for debt. If the government
borrows one more dollar and the private sector saves another dollar in anticipation of future taxes to service the debt, the increase in debt may have no net effect. But the additional debt must be serviced by future generations who may not interpret the increase in debt as a tax on them. In this case, the
increase in debt may not be neutral. The issue is ultimately an empirical one.

Two hundred years of US history indicate that the Congress and Presidents were able to control the debt ratio and keep it from trending upward. Instead it
rose and fell with wars and business cycles. I agree that budget deficits are related to private saving and investment and the balance of payments in order to satisfy the nationa income accounts identities.

jack strawJanuary 19th, 2013 at 11:44 am

again a rather generic piece when so much detail is needed. first is the clear lack of any psychological influences vis a vis money. This is not just a numbers game…"risk" is taken based upon the idea of "perceived reward" as a consequence. The USA has not been behaving as a risk averse nation going on 10 years now. In short within the massive failures of say..US foreign policy…are contained the seeds of large success as well. Identifying and understanding these successes gets us to a more appropriate level of understanding of "why things succeed" as opposed to a more generic, opaque and abstract "well, we're all just kind amoeba's here" view of economics. FOR EXAMPLE the LBO of Dell Computer. Clearly this is "risky behavior." Buying an entire PC company and taking it private is not for the faint of heart…there are billions on the line. Why do it in the first place? And the answer of course is "i have billions on the line." for sure there is nothing preventing Japan or Europe from engaging in such behavior…simply put "they don't." Why? a myriad of factors…not the least being "fear of large numbers" since "large numbers mean large losses." since we know in the USA there is no longer an implied bail out of large risks but in fact an explicit one…indeed an entire regime that has been created and dedicated towards this purpose…the result of such large risk taking needs to be explored and how it benefits society as a whole…if at all…and not whether or not we're just creating a society of winners and losers.

ThomasGrennesJanuary 20th, 2013 at 9:08 am

Yes, the various selective bailouts are difficult to justify. Also the Congressional debt limit expressed in dollars with no adjustment for inflation is arbitrary. However, the current limit
is more like $16 trillion rather than $1.2 trillion.

ThomasGrennesJanuary 20th, 2013 at 9:19 am

Yes, more detailed analysis would be useful. Who is likely to be bailed out affects the kinds
of risks that are taken today (moral hazard problem). The Dodd-Frank bill of 2010 was intended to be a reform bill that would avoid some of the earlier problems, but by creating a class of banks that are "too big to fail", it may turn out to be counterproductive. The biggest banks continue to get bigger. Also implementation of Dodd-Frank has proven to be difficult.
Two years after the bill became law, many of the basic rules facing financial institutions still have not been written. This delay has become a major source of uncertainty for certain types of financial transactions, especially derivatives.

David WishartJanuary 21st, 2013 at 9:19 am

Does Ricardian equivalence actually exist? Although I admit that much of a tax cut may be used for saving, is this because we are banking the extra income to pay taxes later. We pay current taxes out of current income, and future taxes out of future income. From a personal perspective any increase in income that goes to savings is because I have a higher desired level of savings than my current level. A tax cut helps me get there faster. I never tax future tax increase in to consideration. Those tax increases will be funded by my labor income in the future.

Government debt servicing costs as a percentage of GDP are lower now than before the crisis started, despite the increase in debt. So unless there's a rise in interest rates that exceeds the rate of economic growth, there isn't any particular need to raise tax rates because the broadening of the base as economic growth expands will do the trick. Government has the tools available to keep rates low if it wants them to be low, they don't have to worry about bond vigilantes. Vigilantes could attack the U.S. dollar, which would end up being expansionary for the U.S. private sector.

David WishartJanuary 21st, 2013 at 2:45 pm

I didn't clue in until now that I was actually having a debate with the author of the post, woops. My apologies if I sound confrontational. Thanks for keeping up the discussion with me. I blog/write about economics myself and find it so difficult to be succinct, so I appreciate that it can be difficult to flesh out everything you'd like to say without the post suddenly becoming 5000 words. Intelligent discussion in the comments is a great way to address the subtleties. Well at least until you get trolls. Cheers.

ThomasGrennesJanuary 21st, 2013 at 3:20 pm

I appreciate your comments. My attitude is that if someone is willing to spend his valuable time reading my posting and replying, he deserves
the courtesy of a response. I believe in mutual gains from trade in the
marketplace of ideas.I do not think of an exchange as a debate in which each side tries to win. Often both sides gain from clarifying or extending an idea.

ThomasGrennesJanuary 21st, 2013 at 3:32 pm

My reading of the empirical literature is that there is no strong evidence
for or against Ricardian equivalence. Yes, current interest costs on the debt are low because the Fed is keeping interest rates well below their long-term average. This process is the " financial repression" that Reinhart and co-authors have documented historically. It has resulted in
long periods of negative real interest rates. Low rates are good for government borrowing but not for savers, including millions of people
who are saving for retirement and seeking a safe investment.

David WishartJanuary 22nd, 2013 at 8:25 am

Couldn't agree more. I wish more people were open to trading ideas with others rather than debating belief systems, which is dominating the field of economics at the moment.

David WishartJanuary 22nd, 2013 at 8:33 am

I could see Ricardian equivalence being more or less applicable depending on where you are along the income spectrum. For high income earners who already have plenty of disposable income, I would say they save the tax cut, especially since a large proportion of their income comes from investments and can be more volatile. Whereas someone who receives a payroll tax holiday is much more likely to spend that extra disposable income, since that tax hits lowest income earners the hardest. So a tax cut on the top marginal income tax bracket would show a stronger Ricardian Equivalence effect than a payroll tax holiday.

As to financial repression, I think QE has contributed to slowing economic growth, not speeding it up, because it has lowered interest income for the private sector, who are financially constrained, and moved it to the government who doesn't face those same constraints. Due to such low yields, savers have to save even more to have enough for retirement, which lowers aggregate demand today.

John BallardJanuary 22nd, 2013 at 11:33 am

The old-fashioned way of treating debt was to repay it with inflated money. Works like a charm unless inflation is too far out of control. Government did it for years. (Still is, I believe.)
Meantime, ZIRP has frozen that option and has become an economic narcotic.
What am I missing?

ThomasGrennesJanuary 22nd, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Yes, inflating away debt is an old practice. However, it is easier to do with domestic
bondholders than foreigners. If a government does this too often, foreigners will not
buy the bonds unless they are denominated in foreign currency (sometimes called original sin). Will there come a time when foreigners will only buy U.S. government
bonds if they are denominated in Euros or some other foreign currency?

John BallardJanuary 22nd, 2013 at 5:03 pm

So is the rest of the world in such deep doo-doo that US bonds with practically no return is still better than… I dunno… nothing?
Looks like there's too much money already and no place to put it. Call it what you want, I call it inflation. Seems like the whole global economy is in denial. We're already there on a global scale. Somebody needs to point to the naked king.

ThomasGrennesJanuary 23rd, 2013 at 8:15 am

With quantitative easing, the Fed has substantially increased the monetary base and the money supply. However, banks and the public are currently willing to hold the additional
money without inflation. Actual inflation remains around 2%, However, if conditions change in the future, will the Fed be willing to buy back the assets it has acquired and reduce the money supply? A similar situation holds in Europe for the European Central Bank. There is political pressure on both central banks to subordinate their inflation goals in order to deal
with current unemployment.

ThomasGrennesJanuary 24th, 2013 at 8:59 am

Through quantitative easing the Fed (and the European Central Bank) have bought assets and increased the monetary base and the money supply. However, banks and
the public are currently willing to hold the additional money, and realized inflation rates
remain around 2%. An important question for the future is what if the public becomes unwilling to hold the additional money, and their attempt to get rid of the money causes
inflation? Will the Fed be symmetrical and sell the assets they have acquired?

karl eschelbachMay 9th, 2013 at 2:36 am

As Henderson (U Mass) and others have pointed out, correlation is not causation. Rogoff concedes as much. Since the denominator, GDP, can change for reasons unrelated to debt levels such as a financial crisis, just because growth slows when debt is high, there is no reason to conclude that high debt causes slow growth. Perhaps there is a better ratio which is more predictive such as interest rates on ten year debt, ie, debt over ten year interest rate.

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