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Wealth inequality and the optimal level of government debt

  • Sigrid Röhrs
  • Christoph Winter

In this paper, we quantitatively analyze to what extent a benevolent government should issue debt in a model where households are subject to idiosyncratic productivity shocks, insurance markets are missing and borrowing is restricted. In this environment, issuing government bonds facilitates saving for self-insurance. Despite this, we find that in a calibrated version of the model that is consistent with the skewed wealth and earnings distribution observable in the U.S., the government should buy private bonds, and not issue public debt in the long run. The reason is that in the U.S., a large fraction of the population has almost no wealth or is even in debt. The wealth-poor, however, do not profit from an increase in the interest rate following an increase in public debt. Instead, they gain from higher wages that result from a reduction in debt. We show that even when the short run costs of higher capital taxation are taken into account, it still pays off to reduce government debt on overall. Moreover, we find that endogenizing household’s borrowing constraints by assuming limited commitment leads to even higher asset levels being optimal in the long run.

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Paper provided by Department of Economics - University of Zurich in its series ECON - Working Papers with number 051.

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Date of creation: Dec 2011
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Handle: RePEc:zur:econwp:051
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  1. Harald Uhlig & Mathias Trabandt, 2009. "How Far are We from the Slippery Slope? The Laffer Curve Revisited," Working Papers 2009-005, Becker Friedman Institute for Research In Economics.
  2. DAVILA, Julio & HONG, Jay H. & KRUSELL, Per & RIOS-RULL, José-Victor, . "Constrained efficiency in the neoclassical growth model with uninsurable idiosyncratic shocks," CORE Discussion Papers RP 2463, Université catholique de Louvain, Center for Operations Research and Econometrics (CORE).
  3. Barro, Robert J., 1979. "On the Determination of the Public Debt," Scholarly Articles 3451400, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  4. Igor Livshits & James MacGee & Michele Tertilt, 2006. "Accounting for the Rise in Consumer Bankruptcies," Discussion Papers 06-001, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
  5. Satyajit Chatterjee & Dean Corbae & Makoto Nakajima & Jose-Victor Rios-Rull, 2007. "A quantitative theory of unsecured consumer credit with risk of default," Working Papers 07-16, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
  6. Piero Gottardi & Atsushi Kajii & Tomoyuki Nakajima, 2010. "Constrained Inefficiency and Optimal Taxation with Uninsurable Risks," Economics Working Papers ECO2010/02, European University Institute.
  7. S. Rao Aiyagari & Albert Marcet & Thomas J. Sargent & Juha Seppala, 2002. "Optimal Taxation without State-Contingent Debt," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 110(6), pages 1220-1254, December.
  8. S. Rao Aiyagari, 1994. "Uninsured Idiosyncratic Risk and Aggregate Saving," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 109(3), pages 659-684.
  9. Jonathan Heathcote, 2005. "Fiscal Policy with Heterogeneous Agents and Incomplete Markets," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 72(1), pages 161-188.
  10. Trabandt, Mathias & Uhlig, Harald, 2011. "The Laffer curve revisited," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 58(4), pages 305-327.
  11. Acemoglu, Daron & Golosov, Mikhail & Tsyvinski, Aleh, 2008. "Markets versus governments," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 55(1), pages 159-189, January.
  12. Kehoe, Timothy J & Levine, David K, 2001. "Liquidity Constrained Markets versus Debt Constrained Markets," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 69(3), pages 575-98, May.
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