Governments need to rethink their attitudes to debt

GOVERNMENTS do not always make the best budget managers. Assuming it avoids an accidental debt default, America will run a bigger budget deficit this year than the last, despite a booming economy. Germany runs a surplus—but scrimps on critical investments and annoys its euro-area neighbours in the process. Japan, cowering under a mammoth public-debt pile, is weighing raising its consumption tax, though the last rise strangled a tenuous economic recovery. It is awkward, therefore, that the role of fiscal policy as a recession-fighting tool is only growing. The next downturn will be a painful and dangerous learning experience for many politicians.

When that comes, at some point in the next few years, the initial policy response is easily foreseeable. Central banks, nimbler than parliaments, will again move first. But markets reckon that two years from now the Fed’s benchmark rate will remain below 2%, the Bank of England’s below 1% and the European Central Bank’s close to zero. Rates can only go so negative before people abandon the banking system for cash. So cuts to interest rates will be limited. By contrast, in the relatively mild recession of 2001 the Fed cut rates by more than six percentage points. Central-bank asset purchases will follow, assuming they are not already happening, as they might well still be in Europe and Japan. Their effects will be less…

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