Tag Archives: debt

It Takes More than Two to Tango: Cry, But Not for Argentina, nor for the Holdouts

U.S. federal courts have ruled that Argentina is prohibited from making payments to fulfill 2005 and 2010 agreements with its creditors to restructure its debt, so long as it is not also paying a few creditors that have all along been holdouts from those agreements.  The judgment is likely to stick, because the judge (Thomas Griesa, in New York) told American banks on June 27 that it would be illegal for them to transfer Argentina’s payments to the 92 per cent of creditors who agreed to be restructured and because the US Supreme Court in June declined to review the lower court rulings.

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Does Debt Matter?

 
“Does Debt Matter?” is the question posed by The International Economy to 20 commentators:
“The recent scrutiny of the popularized version of the Rogoff-Reinhart thesis (that growth plummets when debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP) makes clear there are no simple formulas for determining the risks in the level of a nation’s debt. …Can a realistic guide be fashioned for determining whether a nation’s debt has reached a danger zone? Or are countries from here on expected to pursue fiscal reforms only if and when a crisis sets in?”

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On Whose Research is the Case for Austerity Mistakenly Based?

Several of my colleagues on the Harvard faculty have recently been casualties in the cross-fire between fiscal austerians and stimulators.   Economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff have received an unbelievable amount of press attention, ever since they were discovered by three researchers at the University of Massachusetts to have made a spreadsheet error in the first of two papers that examined the statistical relationship between debt and growth.   They quickly conceded their mistake.

Then historian Niall Ferguson, also of Harvard, received much flack when — asked to comment on Keynes’ famous phrase  “In the long run we are all dead” — he “suggested that Keynes was perhaps indifferent to the long run because he had no children, and that he had no children because he was gay.”  

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Should Bond Benchmarks Shift from Traditional to GDP-Weighted Indices?

Some prominent institutional bond investors are shifting their focus away from traditional benchmark indices that weight countries’ debt issues by market capitalization, toward GDP-weighted indices.   PIMCO (Pacific Investment Management Company, LLC, the world’s largest fixed-income investment firm) and the Government Pension Fund of Norway (one of the world’s largest Sovereign Wealth Funds), have both recently made moves in this direction.  

There is a danger that some investors will lose sight of the purpose of a benchmark index.   The benchmark exists to represent the views of the median investor dollar.  For many investors, going with the benchmark is a good guideline – especially those who recognize themselves to be relatively unsophisticated and also those who think they are sophisticated but really aren’t.   This is the implication of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH), for example.  

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Could Eurobonds Help Solve the Euro Crisis?

Any solution to the euro crisis must meet two objectives.  One is short run and the other is long run.  Unfortunately they tend to conflict.

The first necessary objective is to put Greece, Portugal, and other troubled countries back on a sustainable debt path, defined as a long-term trajectory where the ratio of debt to GDP is declining rather than rising.  Austerity won’t restore debt sustainability.  It has raised debt/GDP ratios, not lowered them.   A write-down would do it.  New bigger bail-outs might too, or might not.  But either write-downs or bailouts would then create moral hazard and thus make even it even harder to satisfy the second necessary objective.

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High Noon: The Outcome to the Debt Ceiling Standoff

           After a month of high drama the Senate at high noon today voted to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling.    How to evaluate this outcome?    If I must give a one-word verdict, it would be “good.”   If I can expand to two words, it would be “not good.”   If I can elaborate to 20 words: “The legislation confirms the sorry state of our public deliberations, but it is probably the best that could be hoped for,” given where the negotiations were as the big hand on the clock approached twelve.

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The Federal Government Races to the Cliff

In the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean and a teenage rival race two cars to the edge of a cliff in a game of chicken.  Both intend to jump out at the last moment.  But the other guy miscalculates, and goes over the cliff with the car.

This is the game that is being played out in Washington this month over the debt ceiling.  The chance is at least 1/4 that the result will be similarly disastrous.    

It is amazing that the financial markets continue to view the standoff with equanimity.   Interest rates on US treasury bonds remain very low, 3% at the ten-year maturity.   Evidently it is still considered a sign of sophistication to say “This is just politics as usual.  They will come to an agreement in the end.”  Probably they will.  But maybe not.   (I’d put a ½ probability on an agreement that raises the debt limit, but just muddles through in terms of the genuine long term fiscal problem.  That leaves at most a ¼ probability of a genuine long-term solution of the sort that President Obama apparently proposed last week – described as worth $4 trillion over ten years.)

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How Europe Should Treat Sovereign Debt in the Future

My preceding blogpost identified three mistakes made by leaders of the European Economic and Monetary Union in dealing with Greece.   But what is done is done.  The mistakes now lie in the past.  How can Europe’s fiscal regime be reformed to avoid future repeats of this crisis?  

The reforms that are now underway are not credible.  (“We are going to make the fiscal rules more explicit and make sure to monitor them more tightly next time.”)    Similarly, most proposals for how to put teeth into the rules are not credible — penalties such as monetary fines or loss of voting privileges. 

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The ECB’s Three Mistakes in the Greek Debt Crisis

By now just about everybody agrees that the European bailout of Greece has failed:  The debt will have to be restructured.    As has been evident for well over a year, it is not possible to think of a plausible combination of Greek budget balance, sovereign risk premium, and economic growth rates that imply anything other than an explosive path for the future ratio of debt to GDP.

There is plenty of blame to go around.  But three big mistakes can be attributed to the European leadership.  This includes the European Central Bank – surprisingly, in that the ECB has otherwise been the most competent and successful of Europe-wide institutions.

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Time to Grab the Third Rail: Address the Fiscal Problem by Social Security Reform

The current economic question is what to do about budget deficits.   The Greek crisis has made sovereign debt a genuine concern even among advanced countries.  (I should say “especially among advanced countries,” because developing countries now have stronger fiscal positions, in a historic reversal of roles.)   At this weekend’s G-20 Summit, Germany and the UK are defending strong fiscal austerity, with language that doesn’t even allow for the idea that short-term spending might be expansionary under severe recessionary conditions such as 2008-09.   In the US, Peter Orszag is reported this week to have resigned as OMB Director, not just to get married, but supposedly in part out of frustration about the fiscal outlook and President Obama’s refusal, as part of any comprehensive deficit correction program, to reverse his campaign pledge against raising taxes on those earning less than $250,000.

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