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.
As it’s moved beyond the George R.R. Martin novels, the series has evolved both for better and for worse.
Well, that was more like it. Sunday night’s Game of Thrones finale, “The Winds of Winter,” was the best episode of the season—the best, perhaps, in a few seasons. It was packed full of major developments—bye, bye, Baelor; hello, Dany’s fleet—but still found the time for some quieter moments, such as Tyrion’s touching acceptance of the role of Hand of the Queen. I was out of town last week and thus unable to take my usual seat at our Game of Thrones roundtable. But I did have some closing thoughts about what the episode—and season six in general—told us about how the show has evolved.
Last season, viewers got a limited taste—principally in the storylines in the North—of how the show would be different once showrunners Benioff and Weiss ran out of material from George R.R. Martin’s novels and had to set out on their own. But it was this season in which that exception truly became the norm. Though Martin long ago supplied Benioff and Weiss with a general narrative blueprint of the major arcs of the story, they can no longer rely on the books scene by scene. Game of Thrones is truly their show now. And thanks to changes in pacing, character development, and plot streamlining, it’s also a markedly different show from the one we watched in seasons one through four—for the worse and, to some degree, for the better.
Readers share their own experiences in an ongoing series.
Prompted by Emma Green’s note on the Supreme Court case Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, for which a group of lawyers filed a document openly describing their abortions, readers share their own stories in an ongoing collection edited by Chris Bodenner. We are posting a wide range of experiences—from pro-choice and pro-life readers, women and men alike—so if you have an experience not represented so far, please send us a note: email@example.com.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?
Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.
But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?
The switch in their first joint campaign appearance is a reflection of the Democrats' confidence—and her lead in the polls.
NEWS BRIEF There are two simple ways to cut through the bluster and the spin to see how a presidential campaign is really feeling about its prospects at any given moment: You can follow the money, and you can follow the plane.
Is a candidate retrenching by spending more time and ad dollars in states their party has won in the past and must hold onto in November? Or is he or she being more aggressive—and aspirational—by trying to expand the map and add states that are more difficult, and potentially less crucial, to capture the White House?
On Wednesday, the Hillary Clinton campaign offered up a clue to its level of confidence when it announced that it had rescheduled a joint event with President Obama—the first since he endorsed his former secretary of state—for July 5. The rally was originally scheduled for mid-June, but was canceled following the Orlando shooting. What was notable about the announcement, however, is that the Clinton-Obama road show is launching in a different state than the campaign first planned. The postponed rally was to occur in Wisconsin, a state that Democrats haven’t lost in a presidential year since 1984 but which had been seen as a potential pickup for Donald Trump. Clinton and Obama will instead appear in North Carolina, which the president won narrowly in 2008 but lost four years ago.
People in Great Britain felt their leaders weren’t treating them fairly. Politicians in the U.S. should take note.
Britain’s Brexit vote has shocked the political elites of both the U.S. and Europe. The vote wasn’t just about the EU; in fact, polls before the referendum consistently showed that Europe wasn’t top on voters’ lists of concerns. But on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, large numbers of people feel that the fundamental contracts of capitalism and democracy have been broken. In a capitalist economy, citizens tolerate rich people if they share in the wealth, and in a democracy, they give their consent to be governed if those governing do so in their interest. The Brexit vote was an opportunity for people to tell elites that both promises have been broken. The most effective line of the Leave campaign was “take back control.” It is also Donald Trump’s line.
Their degrees may help them secure entry-level jobs, but to advance in their careers, they’ll need much more than technical skills.
American undergraduates are flocking to business programs, and finding plenty of entry-level opportunities. But when businesses go hunting for CEOs or managers, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad,” said Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.
That presents a growing challenge to colleges and universities. Students are clamoring for degrees that will help them secure jobs in a shifting economy, but to succeed in the long term, they’ll require an education that allows them to grow, adapt, and contribute as citizens—and to build successful careers. And it’s why many schools are shaking up their curricula to ensure that undergraduate business majors receive something they may not even know they need—a rigorous liberal-arts education.
The Supreme Court declined to hear a major religious-freedom case on Tuesday, showing how much things have changed since Hobby Lobby.
Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a controversial 5-4 ruling about birth control and religion, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. Because of the ruling, private companies owned by religious people, including the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby, can now refuse to cover certain kinds of birth control in their employee insurance plans, a requirement that was put in place by the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Supporters of the ruling claimed it as a triumph for religious freedom and an important precedent for cases about conscience-based objections to contraception.
Two years later, a pharmacy chain in Washington state, Stormans Inc., which operates a store in Olympia called Ralph’s Thriftway, has been denied a hearing before the Supreme Court. The pharmacy’s owners, along with two other pharmacists who are also plaintiffs in the case, Stormans, Inc. v. Wiesman, refused to stock emergency contraception, including Plan B and ella, for religious reasons—they believe the pills are effectively abortifacients. Long-standing state regulations require Washington pharmacies to stock a “representative assortment of drugs in order to meet the pharmaceutical needs of ... patients.” The requirements were updated in 2007, specifying that pharmacies must deliver all FDA-approved drugs to customers; they can’t refer people to get medication at a different location for any kind of religious or moral reasons.
The star Daily Show correspondent is moving on to make her own scripted comedy, and her gain is the show’s huge loss.
When Jon Stewart announced he was leaving The Daily Show last year, many fans lobbied for Jessica Williams to replace him, pushing one of the show’s standout performers into a limelight she deemed herself not quite ready for. “Thank you, but I am extremely under-qualified for the job!” Williams tweeted. Comedy Central eventually picked Trevor Noah for the gig, and in the following months, Williams’s star has only risen higher. It’s no huge surprise, then, that on Wednesday she told Entertainment Weekly she was moving on from The Daily Show to develop her own scripted series for Comedy Central. It’s great news for Williams, but a huge loss for the show she’s leaving behind.
The discussion over Williams becoming The Daily Show host in 2015 turned into a minor political maelstrom. Williams publicly pushed back against the idea that she had “impostor syndrome,” as suggested by one writer, for calling herself “under-qualified” and pointing to her young age (25 at the time) as a reason for her disinterest in the position. Indeed, there are a thousand reasons to not want the daily grind of a TV hosting gig, and the heightened scrutiny and criticism Noah has received in his year on the job is among them. But as Williams’s popularity and talents have grown, and as The Daily Show has struggled to retain its critical cachet after Stewart’s departure, it’s been hard not to mourn a different outcome in which Williams took the host job and steered the series in a fresher, more relevant direction.
The impenetrable Supreme Court justice’s leftward shift and his latest blockbuster of a term.
Some years ago, Dahlia Lithwick and I christened Justice Anthony Kennedy “the Sphinx of Sacramento.” Throughout his nearly 30 years on the Supreme Court, Kennedy’s mind has often seemed like a distant and mysterious country, with its own language and folkways beyond the ken of normal Americans.
Seldom has it seemed more puzzling than at the end of the Court’s 2015 to 2016 term. Kennedy’s votes in two crucial cases—one dealing with affirmative action and the other with abortion—procured important, and surprisingly sweeping, liberal victories on high-profile issues that conservatives care desperately about.
What is the Sphinx up to?
I often violently disagree with Kennedy’s legal judgment, but I cannot help but admire his personal qualities. In public, and from what I can tell in private, he is a man of deep kindness, courtesy, and benevolence, embodying the sort of small-town civic virtue one would expect from a man who left the snake pit of a big San Francisco firm to go into solo practice in Sacramento, California. His opinions seldom display the petty meanness that sometimes disfigures his colleagues’ work.