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.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 1,100 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
CHELSEA, Ma.—The woman Barry Berman saw sitting in the dining room of the nursing home was not his mother.
Or, at least, she was his mother, but didn’t look anything like her. His mother was vivacious, or she had been until she was felled by a massive stroke and then pneumonia, so he’d moved her into a nursing home so she could recuperate. He knew he could trust the nursing home, since he ran it, and knew it was lauded for the efficiency with which it served residents. But when he went to look for his mother a day or two after he moved her in, he barely recognized her.
“I’ll never forget the feeling as long as I live,” he told me. “I said, ‘Oh my God, there’s my mother, this old woman, in a wheelchair, lifeless. Look what my own nursing home did to my own mother in a matter of days.”
Our patient—we’ll call him W.B.—is a 56-year-old father of three who, until last year, had always been healthy. He had worked his entire life, in jobs ranging from automotive repair to sales, taking great pride in providing for his family, even though doing so had recently meant combining three part-time positions. All of that ended in February 2014, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness, ALS leads to the loss of all voluntary movement, difficulty breathing, and, in the end, death.
W.B.’s life was turned upside down by the diagnosis. But once the initial shock passed, he began researching his condition intensively. He learned that he was unlikely to survive five years, and that in the meantime his quality of life would diminish dramatically. With limited options, many patients retreat. But, quite bravely, W.B. had other ideas. After much consideration, he decided that if he was going to die, he would like to try to save another person’s life in the process, even if that person was a stranger. And so last May he approached the University of Wisconsin’s transplant program, where we are surgeons, as a prospective organ donor.
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a prime-time interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how they shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his gender identity.
During the interview, Sawyer made a conspicuous point of discussing broadly unfamiliar ideas about gender and sexuality to its audience. It didn't always go smoothly; her questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf. But she showed no lack of empathy.
Today was the latest installment of the never-ending Clinton scandal saga, but it won’t be the last. Yet in some ways, the specifics are a distraction. The sale of access was designed into the post-2001 Clinton family finances from the start. Probably nobody will ever prove that this quid led to that quo … but there’s about a quarter-billion-dollar of quid heaped in plain sight and an equally impressive pile of quo, and it’s all been visible for years to anyone who cared to notice. As Jonathan Chait, who is no right-wing noise-machine operator, complained: “The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.”
“All of this amounts to diddly-squat,” pronounced long-time Clinton associate James Carville when news broke that Hillary Clinton had erased huge numbers of emails. That may not be true: If any of the conduct in question proves illegal, destroying relevant records may also have run afoul of the law.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.
Lots of conservatives talk a good game about how citizens should resist federal control and devolve power to local governments. Few of them are willing to put their convictions into action in quite the same way that Sheriff Joe Arpaio is.
The man who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff" was already in trouble with Uncle Sam, on trial for contempt of court in a U.S. district court. It was only once that was under way that Arpaio and his lawyer apparently had the idea to sic a private investigator on the wife of the federal judge hearing his case. That shows toughness. It shows a willingness to use unorthodox tactics to resist federal interference. It's also not especially bright.
Reporters in the courtroom describe a somewhat shocking scene. Lawyers had completed their questioning when Judge Murray Snow announced he had some questions for Arpaio. After a series of queries, Snow asked: "Are you aware that I've been investigated by anyone?"