There is no evidence that countries like the United States face debt tipping points
Have you read the opinion section of any newspaper in the last three years? Yes? Then there is a better-than-even chance you have come across some impressive-sounding analyst predict that the United States is "turning into Greece."
Maybe it's been a while, so we'll recap. The short version of this story is that we'll spend ourselves into bankruptcy. The longer version says that too much public debt makes markets nervous. Nervous markets demand higher interest rates. Higher rates mean higher deficits and lower growth, both of which mean more burdensome debt. More burdensome debt makes markets even more nervous. And around and around we go in a vicious circle into insolvency.
As far as scare stories go, this is pretty damn scary. It's also just a story. Rates haven't risen as debt has the last few years; they have fallen to historic lows. Of course, that hasn't stopped the Greek chorus from predicting that the economy is going to Hades. But when? Is it when debt reaches 100 percent of GDP? Or 90 percent, as Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff famously argued?
What about 80 percent?
That was the bright white line drawn in a recent paper by David Greenlaw, James Hamilton, Peter Hooper and Frederic Mishkin. Greenlaw & Co. ran regressions on 20 advanced economies from 2000 to 2011 to see if there's a relationship between a country's borrowing costs one year and its gross debt, net debt, and 5-year current account average the previous one. (Glossary Interlude: Gross debt refers to the total amount of debt, including debt the government owes to itself. Net debt is the amount held by the public, minus any government assets. Current account is the balance of trade, which includes both net exports and net income on foreign investments).
They found a link. By their calculations, the coefficients for gross and net debt were "both highly statistically significant", and increasing both debt levels by 1 percentage point of GDP would increase borrowing costs by 4.5 basis points (or 0.045 percentage points). The coefficient for the current account balance was also highly significant, and decreasing the balance by 1 percentage point of GDP would increase borrowing costs by 18 basis points.
This is a big deal. It's not that this regression equation has much predictive power (the authors admit it doesn't) or that the above 4.5 basis points are all that scary; it's the claim that there's a statistically significant relationship between debt and rates. After all, if Greenlaw & Co. are right about debt tipping points, then we are, technically-speaking, screwed. Our gross debt to GDP is already at 102 percent -- enough to send our borrowing costs soaring, as they predict below.
If they are right.
They almost certainly are not.
WHY WE'RE SPECIAL
[Things are about to get very wonky below, so my editor forced me to sum up things here. The two main conclusions are: (1) For countries that can borrow in their own currency, like the U.S., higher debt doesn't clearly lead to higher interest rates. (2) For countries that don't control their currencies, like Greece, it's borrowing too much from foreigners (NOT borrowing too much in general) that clearly leads to much higher borrowing costs. Okay, forward with the wonkiness... ]
Not all debt is created equal. Countries that borrow in a currency they control play under a different set of rules. They can never run out of money to pay back what they owe, since they can always print what they need as a last resort. That's not to say they actually do or should turn to the printing-press to finance themselves. But the option to do so calms markets. After all, inflation is a lot less bad than default for creditors. That's why it's no so easy for countries that don't borrow in a currency they control. They can default. And this is a case where thinking can make things so. Indeed, as Paul De Grauwe points out, countries that don't have their own central bank, like euro members, can fall victim to self-fulfilling panics that push them into bankruptcy. In other words, markets force up interest rates because they fear default -- which then pushes them into default. It's a bank-run on a country.
So we have to answer one big question. How much of Greenlaw & Co.'s results are driven by euro countries that have completely different debt dynamics than non-euro countries?
Well, as Paul Krugman points out, 12 of the 20 countries they look at are either part of the euro, or, in Denmark's case, pegged to it. The remaining ones show no signs of anything resembling debt tipping points. Often the reverse. That's simple enough to see if we break up their sample. The chart below looks at the pre-crisis years from their sample, and shows the non-euro countries in red, the core-euro countries in green, and the (later) troubled PIIGS countries in blue. Back then, at least, there wasn't any difference between -- except for Japan, which had far more debt, and far lower borrowing costs. Nor was there much of any discernible relationship between debt and interest rates.
But then Lehman failed, and the world changed. Debt went up and borrowing costs came down -- except for the PIIGS.
I decided to go back and see what kind of results I'd get if I looked at the non-euro countries and PIIGS separately. I started by trying to recreate the Greenlaw & Co. result for the entire 20-country sample over the 12 years -- which I was able to do, with some very slight differences due to slightly different data sources. (I couldn't find IMF data on long-term interest rates for every country, so I used OECD data to fill in the blanks). Next, I ran a regression with country and time-fixed effects on the non-euro countries -- Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. -- from 2000 to 2011. I got coefficients of .00743, .00575, and -0.0695 for gross debt, net debt, and current account, respectively. None of them were statistically significant at the 95 percent level. (The P>t values were 0.13, 0.18, and 0.087).
To translate from stats-speak: our equation for non-euro countries tells us increasing debt by 1 percentage point of GDP only increases borrowing costs by 1.3 basis points. And that result isn't even statistically significant. In other words, there is no evidence of a debt tipping point for countries that borrow in money they can print.
But what about Europe's troubled economies? The Greenlaw & Co. results should hold up there, if nowhere else, right? Well, kind of. I ran another regression with country and time fixed effects on the PIIGS -- Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain -- from 2000 to 2011, and I got coefficients of 0.0605, 0.0209, and -.8952 for gross debt, net debt, and current account. The coefficients for gross debt and the current account were statistically significant (the latter highly so), but not for net debt, since the PIIGS mostly have the same amount of gross and net debt. (The P>t values were 0.046, 0.342, and 0). I went back and ran the regression again, this time without net debt, and got coefficients of 0.0843 and -0.9157 for gross debt and the current account. Both were highly significant. (The P>t values were 0 for both).
Translated: our equation for the PIIGS tells us increasing debt by 1 percentage point of GDP increases borrowing costs by 8.4 basis points -- but increasing the current account deficit by 1 percentage point of GDP increases borrowing costs by 91 basis points! The PIIGS do have a serious problem, but that problem is borrowing too much from foreigners, not too much government borrowing, in general. Of course, this isn't exactly new information. Paul Krugman, among others, has been pointing out for years that the euro crisis is really a balance of payments crisis that just looks like a debt crisis because of the common currency.
Beware economists bearing regressions -- and journalists too. My sample sizes here are so ridiculously small that the results are hardly dispositive. So don't pay attention to the evidence. Pay attention to the lack of evidence.
There isn't any evidence that the U.S., or other countries that borrow in currencies they control, face some debt tipping point after which borrowing costs spiral out of control. There isn't even much evidence this is true of Europe's troubled economies. Borrowing costs fell for the PIIGS in 2012 (one year after Greenlaw & Co.'s sample ended), not because those countries reduced their debt burdens, but because the ECB promised to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro. A monetary backstop matters more than the amount of debt. Reducing debt isn't as empirically urgent as we hear.
Our Greek chorus are more Chicken Littles than Cassandras.
More on the F-16 and Cessna crash, and whether the collision of a military and a civilian aircraft was also a collision of cultures
Early this month an Air Force F-16, under the command of an experienced Air Force pilot, rammed into a small-civilian Cessna 150 propeller plane, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; both people aboard the Cessna were killed.
The next three paragraphs are background for the pointed and interesting reader-messages I am about to quote. If you’re already up to speed with previous installments (one, two, three), you can skip ahead to the messages. They highlight an aspect of the modern military-civilian divide I had not considered before this episode.
In an original item on the crash, I noted some of the perils civilians could face when flying near designated military areas—even though this crash happened in ordinary uncontrolled airspace. That is, it occurred when neither plane was within a Military Operations Area (MOA), where civilian pilots are warned about risks from high-speed military aircraft, nor inside the controlled “Class C” airspace that surrounds Charleston’s airport. (Medium-sized commercial airports like Charleston’s typically are ringed by Class C airspace, so the controllers can sequence in the airline, cargo, civilian, military, and other traffic headed toward their runways. The very busiest airports, like LAX or JFK, are surrounded by larger zones of Class B airspace for their more complex traffic-control jobs. In case you’re wondering, Class A airspace is the realm above 18,000 feet where most jet travel occurs.)
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
Even with the overwhelming recent New York cover story, the women pay a price for speaking out.
Who still defends Bill Cosby? After newly unsealed depositions revealed that the comedian admitted to acquiring sedatives to give to women he wanted to have sex with, his longstanding backer Whoopi Goldberg recanted her support for the man accused of dozens of rapes over the years. The singer Jill Scott, too, said she was wrong when she suspected a media conspiracy against him. And if Cosby’s former costars, including Phylicia Rashad, still believe him to be the target of an illegitimate smear campaign, they haven’t spoken up to say so in a while. Cosby’s lawyer is currently making the rounds in the media to say his deposition has been misconstrued—but that argument, even if believed, doesn’t refute the idea that he used drugs to take advantage of women.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.