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Public Debt and Low Interest Rates

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  • Olivier J. Blanchard

Abstract

This lecture focuses on the costs of public debt when safe interest rates are low. I develop four arguments. First, I show that the current U.S. situation in which safe interest rates are expected to remain below growth rates for a long time, is more the historical norm than the exception. If the future is like the past, this implies that debt rollovers, that is the issuance of debt without a later increase in taxes may well be feasible. Put bluntly, public debt may have no fiscal cost. Second, even in the absence of fiscal costs, public debt reduces capital accumulation, and may therefore have welfare costs. I show that welfare costs may be smaller than typically assumed. The reason is that the safe rate is the risk-adjusted rate of return to capital. If it is lower than the growth rate, it indicates that the risk-adjusted rate of return to capital is in fact low. The average risky rate however also plays a role. I show how both the average risky rate and the average safe rate determine welfare outcomes. Third, I look at the evidence on the average risky rate, i.e. the average marginal product of capital. While the measured rate of earnings has been and is still quite high, the evidence from asset markets suggests that the marginal product of capital may be lower, with the difference reflecting either mismeasurement of capital or rents. This matters for debt: The lower the marginal product, the lower the welfare cost of debt. Fourth, I discuss a number of arguments against high public debt, and in particular the existence of multiple equilibria where investors believe debt to be risky and, by requiring a risk premium, increase the fiscal burden and make debt effectively more risky. This is a very relevant argument, but it does not have straightforward implications for the appropriate level of debt. My purpose in the lecture is not to argue for more public debt. It is to have a richer discussion of the costs of debt and of fiscal policy than is currently the case.

Suggested Citation

  • Olivier J. Blanchard, 2019. "Public Debt and Low Interest Rates," NBER Working Papers 25621, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:25621
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    1. Günter Coenen & Carlos Montes-Galdón & Frank Smets, 2019. "Effects of State-Dependent Forward Guidance, Large-Scale Asset Purchases and Fiscal Stimulus in a Low-Interest-Rate Environment," Working Papers of Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Ghent University, Belgium 19/983, Ghent University, Faculty of Economics and Business Administration.
    2. Gilles Dufrénot & Carolina Ulloa Suarez, 2019. "Public finance sustainability in Europe: a behavioral model," Working Papers halshs-02356400, HAL.
    3. Clemens Fuest & Christa Hainz & Volker Meier & Martin Werding & Giacomo Corneo & Hans Peter Grüner & Dennis Huchzermeier & Bert Rürup & Andreas Knabe & Joachim Weimann & Christine Bortenlänger & Donat, 2019. "Staatsfonds für eine effiziente Altersvorsorge: Welche innovativen Lösungen sind möglich?," ifo Schnelldienst, ifo Institute - Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich, vol. 72(14), pages 03-24, July.
    4. Lorenzo Esposito & Giuseppe Mastromatteo, 2019. "Defaultnomics: Making Sense of the Barro-Ricardo Equivalence in a Financialized World," Economics Working Paper Archive wp_933, Levy Economics Institute.
    5. Antonio Fatás & Atish R. Ghosh & Ugo Panizza & Andrea F Presbitero, 2019. "The Motives to Borrow," IMF Working Papers 19/101, International Monetary Fund.
    6. Andersson, Fredrik N. G. & Jonung, Lars, 2019. "The Swedish Fiscal Framework – The Most Successful One in the EU?," Working Papers 2019:6, Lund University, Department of Economics.
    7. Ludger Schuknecht, 2019. "Fiscal-Financial Vulnerabilities," CESifo Working Paper Series 7776, CESifo Group Munich.
    8. D. Cornille & H. Godefroid & L. Van Meensel & S. Van Parys, 2019. "How risky is the high public debt in a context of low interest rates ?," Economic Review, National Bank of Belgium, issue ii, pages 70-96, September.
    9. Ludger Schuknecht, 2019. "Fiscal-Financial Vulnerabilities," CESifo Working Paper Series 7776, CESifo Group Munich.
    10. Heikki Oksanen, 2019. "Reforming the Euro Pragmatically: Towards Sustainable Fiscal Policy and a Revamped Eurosystem," CESifo Working Paper Series 7912, CESifo Group Munich.
    11. Robert Rowthorn, 2019. "Keynesian Economics - Back from the Dead? The Godley-Tobin Lecture," Working Papers wp512, Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge.
    12. Christopher A. Sims, 2019. "Optimal Fiscal and Monetary Policy with Distorting Taxes," Working Papers 256, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Center for Economic Policy Studies..
    13. David Kiefer, Ivan Mendieta-Munoz, Codrina Rada, Rudiger von Arnim, 2019. "Secular Stagnation and Income Distribution Dynamics," Working Paper Series, Department of Economics, University of Utah 2019_05, University of Utah, Department of Economics.
    14. Colvin, Christopher L. & Winfree, Paul, 2019. "Applied history, applied economics, and economic history," QUCEH Working Paper Series 2019-07, Queen's University Belfast, Queen's University Centre for Economic History.
    15. Jaime Terceiro Lomba, 2019. "The energy transition and the financial system," Revista de Estabilidad Financiera, Banco de España;Revista de Estabilidad Financiera Homepage, issue Autumn.
    16. Gilles Dufrénot & Carolina Ulloa Suarez, 2019. "Public finance sustainability in Europe: a behavioral model," AMSE Working Papers 1929, Aix-Marseille School of Economics, France.
    17. Dmitriy Stolyarov & Linda L. Tesar, 2019. "Interest Rate Trends in a Global Context," Working Papers wp402, University of Michigan, Michigan Retirement Research Center.
    18. El-Shagi, Makram & von Schweinitz, Gregor, 2019. "Fiscal policy and fiscal fragility: Empirical evidence from the OECD," IWH Discussion Papers 13/2019, Halle Institute for Economic Research (IWH).
    19. Spahn, Peter, 2019. "Keynesian capital theory: Declining interest rates and persisting profits," Hohenheim Discussion Papers in Business, Economics and Social Sciences 10-2019, University of Hohenheim, Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences.
    20. Gunther Tichy, 2019. "Das vernachlässigte Massensparen. Die wirtschaftspolitischen Folgen zunehmender Intermediation," WIFO Monatsberichte (monthly reports), WIFO, vol. 92(8), pages 583-597, August.
    21. Hüther, Michael, 2019. "10 Jahre Schuldenbremse: Ein Konzept mit Zukunft?," IW policy papers 3/2019, Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft (IW) / German Economic Institute.
    22. Guillaume Cléaud & Francisco de Castro Fernández & Jorge Durán Laguna & Lucia Granelli & Martin Hallet & Anne Jaubertie & Carlos Maravall Rodriguez & Diana Ognyanova & Balazs Palvolgyi & Tsvetan Tsali, 2019. "Cruising at Different Speeds: Similarities and Divergences between the German and the French Economies," European Economy - Discussion Papers 2015 - 103, Directorate General Economic and Financial Affairs (DG ECFIN), European Commission.

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    JEL classification:

    • E62 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Macroeconomic Policy, Macroeconomic Aspects of Public Finance, and General Outlook - - - Fiscal Policy

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