The future of public debt February 24, 2010 at 12:39 am

A recent paper by Cecchetti et al. The Future of Public Debt has been widely noticed: see for instance here for Ritholtz or here for the Econgrapher. The paper is certainly thought provoking. In particular, it points out that the time bomb of ageing populations is not confined to Japan:

The current expansionary fiscal policy has coincided with rising, and largely unfunded, age-related spending. Driven by the countries’ demographic profiles, the ratio of old-age population to working-age population is projected to rise sharply. Interestingly, this rise is concentrated in countries such as Japan, Spain, Italy and Greece, which are already laden with relatively high debts. Added to population ageing is the problem posed by rising health care costs.

Aging Populations

An ageing population who have been promised a lot combined with slower growth and hence less tax income gives a problem. A big problem in some countries, as these promises are simply unaffordable:

Projected interest on debt

What can we conclude? The authors are clear:

fiscal problems facing industrial economies are bigger than suggested by official debt figures that show the implications of the financial crisis on fiscal balances. As frightening as it is to consider public debt increasing to more than 100% of GDP, an even greater danger arises from a rapidly ageing population

Clearly first world governments are not going to let interest service payments get to 10% of GDP without a struggle. That means some of (perhaps all of) reduced pensions and health care, lower public spending, and increased taxation. Reducing the real value of liabilities makes sense too, so expect somewhat higher inflation eventually – but not for a while. Intergenerational wealth transfer is going to become a key political issue in the developed economies, too. There are interesting times ahead…

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