Tag Archives: deficits

Stratfor: Italy’s Shaky Financial Future

Summary: The debt supercycle is a global phenomenon, with Italy one of the most afflicted nations. High levels of debt plus slow growth makes a toxic combination. Here Stratfor examines the numbers and their implications.

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
— Herbert Stein’s Law (US economist, 1916-1999).


Italy’s Shaky Financial Future

Stratfor, 18 December 2015


As with many aspects of modern banking, the word “bankrupt” has its roots in Renaissance Italy. The original banks were Florentine merchants who would sit in the open street behind benches (bancas in Italian) upon which their money would be stacked. If trading went against them and their capital was reduced to nothing, their bench would be said to be broken, or banca rotta. It is fitting then that, 500 years later, the European country with the most worrying debt problem is Italy.


This may be surprising to some, since Italy does not top the tables as worst offender by any of the usual metrics. It does not have the highest levels of debt to gross domestic product in Europe: That dubious honor belongs to Greece, whose debt to GDP ratio rests more than 40 points higher than Italy’s 132%. Nor are Italian banks afflicted with the highest quantities of nonperforming loans as a percentage of GDP. Cyprus wins that contest easily; at a staggering 137%, it relegates Ireland (23%) to a distant second place and far exceeds Italy at 17%.

But though Italy is not the worst offender, its size still makes it the most potentially problematic. Italy has the third largest economy in the eurozone after Germany and France, and it is 1.5 times bigger than fourth-ranked Spain. So even without having the highest ratios, in actual numbers Italy has the biggest debt mountain: 2.3 trillion euros (roughly $2.4 trillion) of government debt compared with Greece’s 392 billion euros. Thus the three recent Greek bailouts, though giant in relation to the Greek economy, were just a sliver of the European economy as a whole, and in their wake the eurozone carried on more or less unaffected. The same would not be true of Italy. A bailout would be a massive undertaking that would greatly stretch the union’s finances.

Of course, this is not an altogether new phenomenon. Italy’s debt to GDP ratio has been over 100% since the early 1990s, and GDP growth since then has been fairly stagnant. But the fact that Italy’s debt has been large for a long time does not mean it is not dangerous. It was the threat of Italy defaulting that drove much of the market panic during the sovereign debt crisis in 2011 and 2012, when weakness in Europe’s banks had prompted bailouts from their national governments, calling into question the solvency of the governments themselves.

Continue reading

Cacophony about Social Security shows our real political dysfunctionality

Summary: Here we have a wonderful example of the cacophony that takes the place of political debate in the New America, in this case about Social Security. It’s one of the simpler issues facing us: a moderately predictable and fully controllable stream of benefits vs. government revenue — mostly income taxes; some graduated (“income taxes”) and some flat (FICA tax on wage income). Our difficulty understanding it provides a dark omen of our ability to handle our larger problems.  This post complements yesterday’s post about our difficulty seeing how the jobs picture has changed.

Cacophony, from Necromancer

Cacophony, from Necromancer



  1. Cacophony on ABC about SS
  2. Senator Johnson was quite right
  3. Paul Krugman explains
  4. Simple Facts about SS
  5. For More Information


(1)  Typical cacophony on ABC about Social Security

Excerpt from transcript of This Week With George Stephanopoulos, ABC, 10 March 2013



PAUL KRUGMAN: Is it a condition of any Republican support that you have to go for really terrible policies? Because raising the Medicare age is a terrible policy. It raises medical costs, it does very little to improve the budget. It introduces a lot of hardship. Means testing in Medicare is a better policy. I don’t particularly like it, but it’s a better policy. There are other things you can do, other ways you can cut. Even I don’t like the business about changing the price index for Social Security, but that’s not as bad …  (CROSSTALK)

RON JOHNSON (R-WI): To say that the Republicans haven’t done anything is just false. The House has actually passed budgets. With bipartisan proposals to try and save Medicare. The Senate hasn’t passed a budget in over 4 years. Listen, unless we do something, these programs are going broke. It drives me nuts. When I hear people say that Social Security is solvent to the year 2035, it’s not.  (CROSSTALK) In the next 20 years we’ll be $5.1 trillion more in debt than …  (CROSSTALK)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me put a version to George Will’s question to you then. If the president went along with either means testing of Medicare beneficiaries, more far reaching, he’s done a little bit already, and also adjusting consumer pricing index for Social Security recipients, would you as a Senator be open to more revenues?

Continue reading

Another way to look at the national debt. More comforting, less scary.

Summary:   Today we have one example from the flow of comforting words about the government’s deficits. While pleasant reading, written by a knowledgeable expert, it does not withstand close scrutiny.

Government expert at work!

Government expert at work, keeping us warm.

One of the great oddities of history is why nations adopt policies that were so obviously doomed to failure, or even disaster. It’s a long list, from 17th C economist John Law’s managing the debt of France with the Mississippi Company (latter known as the Mississippi Bubble), to Japan declaring war on almost everybody.  For good reason Barbara Tuchman named her greatest history book The March of Folly.

There are two constant elements of these stories.  First, warnings from experts. Second, assurances that these obviously crazy policies this time would end well.

So it is with the US government debt. We have all heard the warnings. As the debt grows, so do the volume of those saying not to worry. The economists of the Keynesian mainstream provide one form of comfort (fix the deficit later).  The economists of the Modern Monetary Theory school provide another form (debts don’t matter, until they cause inflation or a currency collapse).  A third group provides a vague form of comfort. An example of this is “Another way to look at the national debt” by Zachary Karabell (President of River Twice Research), special to the Washington Post, 8 February 2013 — Opening:

Welcome to the next chapter of the endless debt debate. The release of a Congressional Budget Office report on the next 10 years of the U.S. economy ends a brief lull in Washington. As we return once again to our regularly scheduled program of “Crisis and Impasse,” let’s take a moment to consider the following heretical idea: We have no debt problem.

We have spent years demonizing debt, and now have an entire political movement dedicated to the proposition that government debt will destroy America as we know it unless something is done now!

Stand by for a debunking of fears about the debt! I feel better already. The next line starts the analysis:

Yet debt is simply a new form of currency that is issued, bought, priced and sold like any other currency …

This is false. First, government debt (eg, 30 year Treasury bonds) are not currency in any meaningful sense. They vary in price (currency is the standard of measurement for asset prices, like bonds).  More important, although the government can convert debt into currency by printing money (ie, monetization) the process is not automatic.  It is a political decision to inflate away the value of the nation’s loans.

Continue reading

Let’s watch a great nation’s wealth burn away

Summary:   Part of our year-end national festivities should be looking at the deterioration of the Federal government’s finances. Especially since the resolution of the fiscal cliff follies shows that neither party in fact cares.  There are few deficit fighters, mostly arsonists.  As for spending our money, it’s burnt for political profit and private gain. Here we review the damage, put it in context, and consider an alternative.



  1. Deficit = our love of spending + reluctance to pay
  2. The alternative
  3. More details: the debt, and our liabilities
  4. Comparing us to our peers
  5. For More Information


(1)  Deficit = our love of spending + reluctance to pay

One measure of the Federal deficit is the increase in the government’s public debt (ie, net debt — that not held by the social security trust funds).  In 2012 the debt grew $1.1 trillion to $11.6 trillion (that’s our gross debt).

That’s a large number, but tells us little.  More useful is to compare it to our national income: the deficit is aprox 7.2% of 2012’s GDP, the debt is 73% of GDP.  Also important is the rate of growth: it grew by 11% in 2012.

See the numbers for yourself: the US Treasury website shows the Federal debt for everyday from 1993.

What did we get in return? Prosperity, one of the strongest economies among our peers. But like last winter’s snow, only an ephemeral gain. The failed hypersonic cruise missile, the insanely expensive F-22 and F-35 fighters, the massive domestic surveillance apparatus reading everybody’s email, the legions of domestic securities agencies busy entrapping dumb Arab-Americans, the vast flow of public funds into the maws of large corporations — and the wars. All these things comprise Federal spending beyond the baseline, funded by borrowing.

Continue reading

Ed Dolan Asks: What Does it Mean for Fiscal Policy to be “Sustainable”? MMT and Other Perspectives

Summary:  As we approach the fiscal cliff, economists of different schools offer radically different advice.  Austrians and Chicago-ians warn about the consequences of anything other than a fast austerity. Keynesian economists suggest continued deficits until the economic growth (and especially unemployment) return to acceptable levels.  And advocates of modern monetary theory (MMT) tell us not to worry; there are fiscal limits — but they’re of no immediate concern. Today guest author Ed Dolan puts the pleasing MMT perspective under the microscope.

This is the fourth in a series about modern monetary theory. Other posts are:

(1) America’s strength is an illusion created by foolish borrowing, 10 October 2012
(2) Prof Black blasts back at yesterday’s post about the US debt, 11 October 2012
(3) Ed Dolan talks to us about modern monetary theory. Can it save us?, 12 October 2012


  1. Introduction
  2. Sustainability as solvency
  3. Mathematical sustainability
  4. Functional sustainability
  5. What can MMT and the rest of us agree on?
  6. About the author
  7. For More Information about Modern Monetary Theory
  8. Other posts about our fiscal deficits

This was originally posted at Roubini’s Economonitor; posted here with his generous permission

(1)  Introduction

As negotiations over fiscal policy heat up, one thing nearly everyone agrees on is that U.S. fiscal policy should be sustainable. The trouble is, there are sharp disagreements about just what sustainability means. This post explores three different meanings of fiscal policy sustainability and explores their significance for current budget debates.

(2)  Sustainability as solvency

The first, and simplest, meaning of sustainability makes it a synonym for solvency. The proposition that we do not have to worry about debts and deficits because the government can never “run out of money” has become a mantra among followers of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). As L. Randall Wray puts it in his book Modern MoneyTheory, “When we say that [perpetual government sector deficits] are ‘sustainable’ we merely mean in the sense that sovereign government can continue to make all payments as they come due—including interest payments—no matter how big those payments become.”

Continue reading

Prof Black blasts back at yesterday’s post about the US debt

Summary:  Economics is one of the central sciences of our time, especially about one of the frontier subjects: the macroeconomic effect of debt. Yesterday’s post centered on a graph from Ed Dolan. Today we have a rebuttal by Prof William K. Black. There are few aspects of economic theory more important today.

This is the second in a series. Other posts are:

(1)  America’s strength is an illusion created by foolish borrowing, 10 October 2012
(3)  Ed Dolan talks to us about modern monetary theory. Can it save us?, 12 October 2012
(4) Ed Dolan Asks What Does it Mean for Fiscal Policy to be “Sustainable”? MMT and Other Perspectives, 30 November 2012

This discusses  yesterday’s post, in particular the source of its centerpiece, a graph from “By One Key Budget Indicator, the Structural Primary Balance, Even Greece Is Doing Better Than the United States. Why That Should Worry Us.“, Ed Dolan (bio), Roubini’s Economonitor, 8 October 2012.

Prof William K. Black


  1. Prof Black’s reply
  2. About the author
  3. Update: Ed Dolan replies
  4. About Modern Monetary Theory
  5. For More Information

(1)  Prof Black’s reply

The argument that began the discussion relies on this fundamental assertion {from the post}:

“A fundamental measure of a nation’s financial condition is the structural primary budget balance. AKA the cyclically adjusted budget balance. As in this graph from “By One Key Budget Indicator, the Structural Primary Balance, Even Greece Is Doing Better Than the United States. Why That Should Worry Us.” by Ed Dolan. “

He is a very conservative scholar as you can see from his blogs and his associations with George Mason University and Cato. Dolan’s piece includes the admission that our present deficit

  • is largely the product of the Recession and
  • during the recovery from the Great Recession fiscal stimulus acts as an “automatic stabilizer,” i.e., a “counter-cyclical” policy that speeds recovery and reduces the severity of the recession.

Europe and Chile as economic experiments

Note that the world has provided a “natural experiment.” The EU responded to the Great Recession with austerity, a pro-cyclical policy that makes the recession more severe and longer. Moreover, EU and ECB leaders’ mantra is “there is no alternative” (a phrase that should send warning chills up any veteran’s spine) — because nations that joined the Eurozone gave up their sovereign currency they no longer have the ability to adopt rational automatic stabilizers. More precisely, they crippled the effectiveness of their automatic stabilizers through the limitations of their “Stability and Growth Pact.”

Note that this has not prevented budget deficits from occurring but it has greatly reduced fiscal stimulus.

Continue reading

America’s strength is an illusion created by foolish borrowing

Summary: Our slow recovery, especially compared to Japan and Europe, has boosted America’s sense of exceptionality and general awesomeness. So our Presidential candidates speak of new foreign wars (lots of potential in Africa and the Middle East), new domestic programs, and tax cuts — plus vague assurances that the deficit can also be cut.  Today we see the one graph that destroys those illusions.

This is the first in a series. Other posts are:

(2)  Prof Black blasts back at yesterday’s post about the US debt, 11 October 2012
(3) Ed Dolan talks to us about modern monetary theory. Can it save us?, 12 October 2012
(4) Ed Dolan Asks What Does it Mean for Fiscal Policy to be “Sustainable”? MMT and Other Perspectives, 30 November 2012

A fundamental measure of a nation’s financial condition is the structural primary budget balance. AKA the cyclically adjusted budget balance.  As in this graph from “By One Key Budget Indicator, the Structural Primary Balance, Even Greece Is Doing Better Than the United States. Why That Should Worry Us.“, Ed Dolan (bio here), Roubini’s Economonitor, 8 October 2012.  For an explanation read his article, which is important, clear and detailed.


Ed Dolan, Roubini Economonitor, 7 Oct 2012


What does this chart tell us?

Continue reading