Money Is Cheap

Jul 30, 2012

The “serious people” in the political world, the media and a lot of “think tanks” (where, apparently, people do very serious thinking) keep telling you, day after day, that a very important goal right now — today, immediately — is to have a balanced government budget. Never mind the need for major investments that are needed in a whole host of things like infrastructure and social services. Balance. It. Now. Except they are wrong — and they are leading us down a quite foolish path.

I know this is a bit wonky but it’s actually quite easy to understand. Money for public spending is actually quite cheap right now to get. Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman points this out, speaking mostly about the US economy but the point is relevant worldwide, that government borrowing costs are lower than they’ve been in recent memory. Why?:

The main answer is that this is what happens when you have a “deleveraging shock,” in which everyone is trying to pay down debt at the same time. Household borrowing has plunged; businesses are sitting on cash because there’s no reason to expand capacity when the sales aren’t there; and the result is that investors are all dressed up with nowhere to go, or rather no place to put their money. So they’re buying government debt, even at very low returns, for lack of alternatives. Moreover, by making money available so cheaply, they are in effect begging governments to issue more debt.

And governments should be granting their wish, not obsessing over short-term deficits.

No one is happy with the conditions that are making money so cheap to borrow — the Global Financial Crisis has brought down a world of hurt on to the heads of tens of millions of workers, while the bankers have skated by.

But, if there is a silver lining here that governments should seize, it’s that the terrible mess opens up a window of time to spend money to make some serious, long-term investments that will make the economy better for real people. Of course, some day, you do pay back debts — just like one does in paying for a child’s education, or a home or another investment that makes sense. But, right now, at a time when money is so cheap it’s almost being handed to governments for free, we should not be wringing our hands over government deficits.

By the way, Australia’s deficit, as a percentage of gross domestic product (which is how you want to look at it — think of it: it’s like your personal income…you always wants to balance how much you borrow with your ability to earn enough to pay the debt back) is 0.7 percent — a tiny amount. By comparison, China’s annual deficit is running at 2.3 percent of GDP, Japan 8.1, Canada 3.3 and on and on. The only two countries with serious big surpluses are Saudi Arabia and Norway — thanks to oil revenues pouring in.

Anyway, spend the money.


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