Yesterday I explained why you need increased consumption to sustain growth and to generate the need for investment. I pointed out that exports are not morally potent or special as a type of output. They just add to output and jobs as does supplying the domestic market. You need to export enough only in order to pay for the things you import that you think are better made abroad. If you are unable to export enough to cover your bills in the longer term, then you need to make more of what you want at home. Rebalancing in favour of more exports and more investment may be a good idea, but it can only happen if there is enough consumption demand at home and abroad. Nor can it happen if people are unable to borrow sensible sums of money to buy homes, cars, and other large ticket items.
Today I want to look at why the state, just like individuals and companies, has to accept there are limits to how much it can borrow. My critics here have tried to argue I want there to be another consumer boom and property bubble based on excess borrowing by the private sector. No I do not. I do, however, want there to be sensible amounts of credit so people wanting to buy homes can borrow on mortgage, and companies wishing to expand can add prudently to their loan capital. My critics should also understand that household wealth is now standing at over £7 trillion. The value of our homes net of our mortgages is £3 trillion, and the value of our pensions, insurance savings and the rest is £4 trillion. It may be perfectly prudent to borrow a bit against this big asset base.
The issue is how easily in future will the state – or an individual or company – be able to pay the interest on the debt and meet the repayment schedules? At extremes I would hope those who favour never ending debt fuelled state expansion will see the same rules apply to a government as to a company or person. If the state borrows too much, interest charges take up too large a proportion of the tax revenue of the country, and the state is no longer able to provide the services it wishes to offer.
Once lenders to the state start to doubt its ability to pay the interest, so they force the state to pay higher rates to borrow more. The state can lose its ability to borrow seemingly limitless sums to meet its desires and needs. This has been very obvious in the case of the crippled sovereigns of Euroland, where Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus have all found it impossible to borrow on the markets to sustain their spending and meet their obligations. They have been forced into special loans by the international community requiring deep cuts in spending. The same has happened in living memory with some latin American countries, led by Argentina, where they reach the point that they cannot sustain their debts and have far worse austerity forced on them than would have kept them out of trouble in the first place. Indeed, the 1970s Labour government got to the point where it had to pay more than 15% to borrow money from the bond market, around the time it was forced into spending cuts by the IMF. A state cannot carry on borrowing when the interest bill spirals out of control.
It is true the combined powers to tax and to print which sovereign governments enjoy and individuals do not, give a state more leeway before the crisis hits. It does not, however, prevent a crisis in the case of states which borrow excessively for long periods. The UK has been borrowing far too much. The total build up of state debts and liabilities, often catalogued here, had gone too far by 2010 and did need correcting. Correction is taking time, but the deficit is now falling and in due course state debt as a proportion of output will start to fall. That is a necessary adjustment that has to be the fundamental concern in rebalancing the economy. If we do not do that we do just fuel an unsustainable debt burden for future taxpayers. Borrowing is not free money. It is deferred tax.