Saturday, September 4, 2021

The national debt expressed as a proportion of GDP - and the Furman & Summers point (among lots of other interesting points for IB Economics students)

From my experience (not though from last year as all my classes were online) incorporating podcasts in teaching IB economics can be very effective. The podcast must of course be at an appropriate level for students taking IB HL (or, SL) economics.

In addition, at least in my opinion, the teacher must only focus on specific bits of the podcast, either to start a classroom discussion on a specific issue of interest, or to assign homework that expects students to explain or evaluate a position expressed in the podcast.  Focusing on bits is absolutely necessary if the podcast is long and/or if segments of it become too involved for their level.

David Beckworth, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University,  hosts the Macro Musings Podcasts which are always excellent (for teachers) and sometimes appropriate (at least bits of them) for IB Economics students.
One recent very interesting podcast was an interview of Jason Furman titled Jason Furman on Overheating, Inflation, and Fiscal Policy in an Era of Low Interest Rates .  

Jason Furman is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a professor of the practice of economic policy jointly at the Kennedy School of Government and at the department of economics at Harvard University.

In this interview Furman, prompted by Beckworth, starts by explaining the two things that are a concern to him if inflation accelerates (namely that real wages decrease exacerbating inequality and the risk of recession if the central bank raises interest rates too quickly); he continues explaining the importance of anchored inflationary expectations (and there’s lots of discussion with Beckworth on the debate about whether inflation in the US is now transitory/temporary or persistent - in which case the central bank must start worrying); he also makes the case why a higher than 2% inflation target (perhaps even 4% even though Furman likes 3%) may be preferable – it gives policymakers more flexibility plus, given sticky nominal wages, the resulting decrease in the real wage will permit employment levels to be maintained; and then gets into some more esoteric issues (that are not accessible to IB Economics students in my opinion).

What is though most interesting for IB economics students (higher level only) is found later on in their conversation when Furman presents the paper he co-authored with Larry Summers “A Reconsideration of Fiscal Policy in the Era of Low Interest Rates". 

This is the paragraph that is worth some discussion given that the new IB Economics syllabus has now included a discussion of what a sustainable level of  national debt is and explicitly expects students to know that the size of the national debt should be expressed as a percentage of GDP (“Measurement of government (national) debt as a percentage of GDP”).  This of course makes sense…
but, Furman goes on saying that:
…our biggest argument is that debt-to-GDP is a misleading metric because debt is a stock. It's what you have at a point in time. Income is a flow. If you compare your debt to today's income, it's incredibly high. If you compare it to your income over the course of the next decade, it's a whole lot lower. That's more than just a cutesy observation when you combine it with the fact that interest rates have fallen on a sustained basis. You look across the G7 and the real interest rate has fallen from about 4%, 30 years ago, to around 0%, just prior to the pandemic. And that means that you can, from a fiscal sustainability perspective, pay your debt off over a longer period of time…
and continues by explaining…
So we (F&S) argue that the right way to look at it is from a flow-flow perspective. What's the flow you need to pay each year, and what's the flow of income you have each year. We go a little bit further into a place that I don't haven't noticed others do, but maybe they have. I'm sure somebody has. Which is that the relevant way to think about interest is the real interest payments. If you're in a world of higher inflation, you're inflating away more of your debt. You don't mind the portion of interest that's just covering inflation. What your mind is the portion above and beyond that. And so, our preferred metric for fiscal sustainability is looking at real debt service as a share of GDP.

This Furman & Summers point about the right metric to judge the sustainability of a country’s debt can be explained I think to IB HL economics students.  If explained and if understood then (strong) candidates could incorporate the discussion in a debt related paper 1 question related to debt sustainability.  I think that could push their response easily towards a Level 5.  

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