Growth, Debt, and Assets: Why Politicians are Better at Economics Than Economists

Print
Friday, 31 May 2013 09:08

The wealthy countries of the world have spent the last three and half years falling off a 90 percent debt-to-GDP growth cliff that we should now all be able to agree does not exist. While I am happy to see that economists have been able to demonstrate conclusively that the world is not flat, I will just quickly explain again why I always knew this fact.

As I have explained numerous times, in addition to debt, governments also have assets. In fact, governments routinely sell assets, not just out of ideological or corruption driven privatization drives, but in the normal course of events they will have occasion to sell off items like land, unneeded office space, portions of the broadcast spectrum, etc.

If there were some serious growth penalty associated with certain debt levels then it would imply that selling off assets would give an above market return. Not only would the government get the market price for whatever asset it was selling, but it would also lead to a growth premium as a result of pushing its debt lower. In the case of the Reinhart-Rogoff cliff story, this premium would be enormous since we could envision raising growth by a full percentage point by selling enough assets to lower our debt-to-GDP ratio from 95 percent to 85 percent (roughly $1.6 trillion in assets).

We don't typically see governments selling assets for this reason. This would suggest that either governments were very dumb for not taking advantage of an easy way to boost growth or that debt does not have the negative impact on growth that was advertised.

While there are plenty of politicians who are to lunch when it comes to economic policy, this struck me as too out to lunch to be believed. For this reason, I could never be a believer in the Reinhart-Rogoff debt cliff even before other economists were able to show that the relationship did not exist.