Be Smart, Borrow More!
Larry Summers has a very interesting piece on yesterday’s Financial Times.
He argues that a few countries (the US, Germany, Japan, the UK; I would also add France) enjoy extremely low borrowing rates, both short and long run. In particular, real rates (nominal rate minus inflation) are negative or zero for maturities up to 5 years, and extremely low for longer ones. Summers’ conclusions are then straightforward:
- Focusing on further quantitative easing is not particularly useful; given the already very low rates, further reductions are unlikely to trigger private spending (it has a name: liquidity trap. And Paul Krugman has been insisting a lot on this, for example here)
- More importantly, government should borrow now, like crazy, taking advantage of the favorable conditions to reinforce their long term fiscal sustainability. This is what any reasonable CEO would do, and there is no reason why governments should act differently.
Summers makes a point that is almost obvious: Any project that has positive expected return would improve the country’s fiscal position, if financed with debt at negative real rates: This is the time for example to borrow to buy government buildings that are currently leased. Or to accelerate the rate of replacement of aging capital; or again, to engage in long term infrastructure building/renovation. Makes sense, right? It makes so much sense, that chances are that it will not be done…
I would like to add two considerations. The first is to stress that to get private demand started, it is important that growth perspectives are stronger. Firms today do not invest, not because of borrowing costs, but because even at very low interest rates, expected demand is so low that investment is not profitable. The second is that, for Europe, increased borrowing in Germany, France and the UK would be crucial. Countries enjoying low rates could not only significantly improve their long term prospects, as Summers argues. They could also sustain demand in countries that are consolidating, thus favoring the rebalancing I have repeatedly argued for.