Putting on weight 体重增加

2020.10


Governments can borrow more than was once believed
政府可以借的钱比一度认为的更多【“反思经济学基本理论”系列之四】 

 

Putting on weight 体重增加


IF PEOPLE KNOW one thing about the thinking of John Maynard Keynes, who more or less founded macroeconomics, it is that he was in favour of governments borrowing lots of money, at least under some circumstances. The “New Keynesian” orthodoxy that evolved from his work in the second half of the 20th century was much less liberal in this regard. It put less faith in borrowing’s purported benefits, and had greater concerns about its dangers.
如果人们对约翰•梅纳德•凯恩斯的思想只有一点了解——他差不多可以说是创立了宏观经济学——那就是他支持政府借入大量资金,至少在某些情况下是这样。20世纪下半叶从他的研究演变而来的“新凯恩斯主义”正统观念在这方面的自由度要低得多。它对借贷号称的好处不抱太大信心,而对其危险更加担忧。
The 2010s saw the pendulum swinging back. In large part because they feel bereft of other options, many governments have borrowed heavily—and as yet they have paid no dreadful price. Can this go on?
在2010年代,风水轮流转了。很大程度上是由于感到别无选择,许多政府举债沉重——而至今还没有付出可怕的代价。这能继续吗?
Keynes’s ideas about borrowing reflected his view of recessions—and in particular, the Depression of the 1930s, during which he wrote “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”—as vicious circles. Recessions come about when the economy is hit by a sudden rise in the desire to save money; such desires lead to lower spending, which leads to more unemployment, which leads to yet less spending, and so on. If the government borrows enough to offset lower private spending with increased spending of its own the circle can be broken—or stopped from getting going.
凯恩斯对于借贷的观点反映了他对经济衰退的看法——尤其是1930年代的大萧条,他在那时写出了《就业、利息和货币通论》——认为它们是恶性循环。当经济遭到储蓄欲望突然上升的冲击时,就会出现衰退。这种欲望导致支出减少,从而导致失业增加,再导致支出进一步减少,如此往复。如果政府借入足够多的钱,用自身支出的增加来抵消私人支出的减少,就可以打破或停止这种循环。
Most early Keynesians assumed that the deficits caused by borrowing to stimulate the economy would be temporary; after borrowing more than they raised in taxes in order to provide a fiscal stimulus, governments would be able to raise more in taxes, and thus pay off their debts, in the good times that followed. Some, though, suspected that the structure of the advanced economies of the 1930s might mean they were low on demand even in the good times, and that a permanent deficit might be necessary to keep the economy going at a rate that minimised unemployment.
多数早期凯恩斯主义者认为由借贷刺激经济造成的赤字是暂时的。在借款超过税收以提供财政刺激后,政府将能够在随后的好年景中获得更多税收,从而偿还债务。不过,有些人怀疑,1930年代发达经济体的结构可能意味着哪怕在景气时期需求也很低,可能需要永久赤字才能使经济以把失业率维持在最低的速度运行下去。
Debates about the proper role of fiscal stimulus became less urgent in the decades after the second world war, as robust economic growth eased worries that demobilisation might bring a return of Depression-like conditions. Faith in Keynesian orthodoxy was further shaken by the economic developments of the 1970s and 1980s. Some economists began to argue that the public would eventually adjust to stimulus measures in ways that weakened their impact. Robert Barro, a leading proponent of this “rational expectations” approach, argued that a fiscal stimulus paid for by borrowing would see households spend less and save more, because they would know that tax rises were coming. This decreased private spending would then offset the increased public spending.
在第二次世界大战后的几十年中,关于财政刺激的合理地位的辩论变得不那么紧迫,因为强劲的经济增长缓解了人们对复员可能引发类似于大萧条的状况的担忧。七八十年代的经济发展进一步动摇了凯恩斯主义的正统信仰。一些经济学家开始辩称,公众最终会适应刺激措施,从而削弱其影响。这种“理性预期”观点的主要倡导者罗伯特•巴罗(Robert Barro)称,通过借贷支付的财政刺激措施将使家庭支出减少,储蓄更多,因为他们知道未来会加税。私人支出的减少将抵消公共支出的增加。
Linked to, but broader than, such academic questions was the fact that, by the 1970s, the ways in which Keynesian governments had been running their economies seemed to have failed. A trifecta of slowing growth, soaring inflation and high unemployment brought the idea of governments being able to avoid recessions through stimulus into disrepute.
与此类学术问题相关但比它们宽泛的事实是,到1970年代,凯恩斯主义政府经营经济的方式似乎已经失败。增长放缓、通胀上升和高失业率的三连击让政府能够通过刺激来避免衰退的思想声名扫地。
The new orthodoxy was that governments should instead rely on monetary policy. When the economy slowed, monetary policy would loosen, making it cheaper to borrow, thus encouraging people to spend. Government borrowing, for its part, should be kept on a short leash. If governments pushed up their debt-to-GDP ratio, markets would become unwilling to lend to them, forcing up interest rates willy-nilly. The usefulness of monetary policy demanded a sober approach to fiscal policy.
新的正统观念是政府应改为依赖货币政策。当经济放缓时,货币政策将放松,使借贷成本降低,从而鼓励人们消费。政府借款则应受到严密控制。如果政府提高债务对GDP的比率,市场将不愿向它们放贷,从而迫使利率提高。货币政策的实用性要求对财政政策采取清醒的态度。
The 2000s, however, saw a problem with this approach beginning to become plain. From the 1980s, interest rates had been in a long, steady decline. By the 2000s they had reached historical lows. Low rates made it harder for central banks to stimulate economies by cutting them further: there was not room to do so. The global financial crisis pushed rates around the world to near zero.
但是,在2000年代,这种方法存在的问题开始显现。从1980年代开始,利率一直长期稳定下降。到2000年代,它们已经达到历史最低点。低利率使中央银行更难以通过进一步削减利率来刺激经济:这样做的空间已经没有了。全球金融危机将全球利率推至接近零。
Governments experimented with more radical monetary policy, such as the form of money printing known as “quantitative easing”. Their economies continued to underperform. There seemed to be room for new thinking, and a revamped Keynesianism sought to provide it. In 2012 Larry Summers, a former American treasury secretary, and Brad DeLong, an economist, suggested a large Keynesian stimulus based on borrowing. Thanks to low interest rates, the gains it would provide by boosting the growth rate of GDP might outstrip the cost of financing the debt taken on.
各国政府尝试了更为激进的货币政策,例如被称为“量化宽松”的印钱形式。它们的经济继续表现不佳。这似乎为新思路创造了空间,而一个新版本的凯恩斯主义开始试水。2012年,前美国财政部长拉里•萨默斯(Larry Summers)和经济学家布拉德•德隆(Brad DeLong)提出了基于借贷的大规模凯恩斯主义刺激方案。由于利率低,通过提高GDP增长率而带来的收益可能会超过负债的融资成本。
In the following year Mr Summers followed some 1930s Keynesians, notably Alvin Hansen, in suggesting that borrowing in order to stimulate might be needed not just as an occasional pick-me-up, but as a permanent part of the economy. Hansen had argued that an ageing population and a low rate of technological innovation produced a long-term lack of demand which he called “secular stagnation”. Mr Summers took an updated but similar view. Part of his backing for this idea was that the long-term decline of interest rates showed a persistent lack of demand.
第二年,萨默斯跟随了一些1930年代的凯恩斯主义者,特别是阿尔文•汉森(Alvin Hansen),提出通过借贷来刺激经济可能不仅需要用作暂时的提振,还要成为经济的永久组成部分。汉森认为,人口老龄化和技术创新速度慢导致长期需求不足(他称之为“长期停滞”)。萨默斯发表了更新但相似的观点。他支持这一想法的部分原因是利率的长期下降表明需求持续不足。
Way down we go
一路走低
Sceptics insisted that such borrowing would drive interest rates up. But as the years went by and interest rates remained stubbornly low, the notion of borrowing for fiscal stimulus started to seem more tenable, even attractive. Very low interest rates mean that economies can grow faster than debt repayments do. Negative interest rates, which have been seen in some countries over recent years, mean that the amount to repay will actually be less than the amount borrowed.
怀疑论者坚持认为,这种借贷将推高利率。但是,随着岁月的流逝,利率仍然顽固地维持在低位,借贷以刺激财政的想法似乎变得更站得住脚,甚至变得有吸引力了。极低的利率意味着经济的增长可以快过偿债增加。近年来在一些国家已经出现了负利率,这意味着要偿还的金额实际上将少于借入的金额。
Adherents of “Modern Monetary Theory” (MMT) went further than this, arguing that governments should borrow as much as was needed to achieve full employment while central banks focused simply on keeping interest rates low—a course of action which orthodox economics would expect to promptly drive up inflation. Currently MMT remains on the fringes of academic economics. But it has been embraced by some left-wing politicians; Senator Bernie Sanders, the candidate beaten by Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination, counted an MMT enthusiast, Stephanie Kelton of Stony Brook University, among his chief advisers.
“现代货币理论”(MMT)的拥趸更进一步提出,各国政府应为实现充分就业而借入尽可能多的钱,而央行只应专注于保持低利率——正统经济学认为这么做会迅速抬高通胀。当前,MMT仍然处于学术经济学的边缘。但一些左翼政客已经接受了它。参议员伯尼•桑德斯是拜登在民主党初选提名中击败的参选人,他的首席顾问包括一位MMT支持者——石溪大学的斯蒂芬妮•科尔顿(Stephanie Kelton)。 
The shift in mainstream thinking on debt helps explain why the huge amounts of government borrowing with which the world has responded to the pandemic has not worried economists. But now that governments have, if only for want of an alternative, become more willing to take on debt, what should be their limit? For an empirical answer, it is tempting to consider Japan, where the ratio of net public debt to GDP stood at 154% prior to the pandemic.
关于债务的主流观念的转变,有助于解释为什么世界为应对疫情而进行的大量政府借贷并不令经济学家感到担忧。但是,既然政府已经(哪怕只是因为缺乏其他选择)变得更愿意承担债务,那么极限在哪里?疫情前公共债务净额与GDP之比就已达到154%的日本提供了一个诱人的实证案例。
If Japan can continue to borrow with that level of debt, it might seem that countries with lower levels should also be fine. But this ignores the fact that if interest rates stagger back from the floor, burdens a lot smaller than Japan’s might become perilously unstable. There is no immediate account for why this might be likely. But that does not mean it will not happen. And governments need to remember that debt taken on at one interest rate may, if market sentiment changes, need to be rolled over at a much higher one in times to come.
如果日本可以继续以这种债务水平举债,那么看起来债务水平更低的国家也应该没事。但这忽略了一个事实,那就是如果利率从最低点开始逐步攀升,哪怕比日本小得多的负担也可能出现危险的不稳定。还没有什么摆在眼前的理由说明它很可能出现,但这并不意味着它不会发生。政府还需要记住,如果市场情绪发生变化,以一种利率借入的债务可能需要在以后的某个时候以高得多的利率展期。
Given this background risk, governments ideally ought to make sure that new borrowing is doing things that will provide a lasting good, greater than the final cost of the borrowing. If money is very cheap and likely to remain so, this will look like a fairly low bar. But there are opportunity costs to consider. If private borrowing has a high return and public borrowing crowds it out, then the public borrowing either needs to show a similarly high return or it needs to be cut back.
考虑到这种背景风险,理想情况下政府须确保新借款所派的用处能够提供持久的好处,而且要超过最终的借贷成本。如果钱很便宜并且很可能会一直如此,这看起来将是一个相当低的门槛。但还有机会成本要考虑。如果私人借贷的回报率很高,而公共借贷将其挤出,那么公共借贷要么需要表现出同样高的回报率,要么就得缩减。
At the moment private returns remain well above the cost of new borrowing in most places: in America, for instance, the earnings of corporations are generally high relative to the replacement cost of their capital. This makes it conceivable that resources used by the government would generate a greater level of welfare if they were instead mobilised by private firms.
目前,私人回报率在大多数地方仍然远远高于新借贷的成本:例如在美国,公司的收益相对于其资本的重置成本而言普遍很高。可以想象,如果政府使用的资源改为由私人公司运用,会产生更大的福利。
But it does not currently look as though they would be. Despite the seemingly high returns to new capital, private investment in America is quite low. This suggests either that there are other obstacles to new investment, or that the high returns on investment reflect an insufficient level of competition rather than highly productive companies.
但是目前看来并没有。尽管新资本的回报貌似很高,但美国的私人投资仍然很低。这表明要么存在其他阻碍新投资的障碍,要么表明高投资回报率反映了竞争水平不足,而不是企业的生产率高。
Both possibilities call for government remedy: either action aimed at identifying and dismantling the obstacles to investment, or at increasing competition. And until such actions produce greater investment or lower returns, the case for government borrowing remains quite strong. This is even more the case for public investments which might in themselves encourage the private sector to match them—“crowding in”, as opposed to crowding out. Investment in a much better electricity grid, for example, could increase investment in zero-carbon generation.
两种可能性都要求政府采取补救措施:要么采取行动查明和消除投资障碍,要么加强竞争。并且,在此类行动引发更大的投资或更低的回报之前,政府借贷的理由仍然很强。公共投资更是如此,它本身就可能会鼓励私营部门与之配套——“挤入”而不是挤出。例如,投资大幅改善电网可能会增加对零碳发电的投资。
In the long run, the way to avoid having to borrow to the hilt is to implement structural changes which will revive what does seem to be chronically weak demand. Unfortunately, there is no consensus over why demand is weak. Is technological progress, outside the realm of computers and communications, not what it was? Is inequality putting money into the hands of the rich, who are less likely to spend their next dollar, rather than the poor, who are more likely? Are volatile financial markets encouraging precautionary saving both by firms and governments? Is the ageing of the population at the root of it all?
从长远来看,避免借债到极限的方法是实施结构性改革,这将令看上去确是长期疲软的需求复苏。不幸的是,对于需求为何疲软,人们尚无共识。是计算机和通信领域之外的技术进步不复往昔吗?是不平等把钱交到了不那么积极花出下一块钱的富人,而不是更有可能花钱的穷人手中吗?是因为波动的金融市场鼓励公司和政府进行预防性储蓄吗?人口老龄化是一切的根源吗?
Making people younger is not a viable policy option. But the volatility of markets might be addressed by regulation, and a lack of competition by antitrust actions. If inequality is at the root, redistribution (or its jargony cousin, predistribution) could perk up demand. Dealing with the structural problems constraining demand would probably push up interest rates, creating difficulties for those governments which have already accumulated large debt piles. But stronger underlying growth would subsequently reduce the need for further government borrowing, raise GDP and boost tax revenues. In principle that would make it easier for governments in such situations to pay down their increased debt.
让民众变年轻不是一个现实的政策选项。但是市场的波动可以通过监管来解决,缺乏竞争可以通过反托拉斯行为应对。如果不平等是根源,再分配(或其类似的术语“预分配”)可能会刺激需求。处理约束需求的结构性问题可能会推高利率,给已经积累了大量债务的政府带来困难。但是,强劲的基础增长将随后减少对政府进一步借款的需求,提高GDP并增加税收。从原则上讲,在这种情况下,政府可以更轻松地偿还增加的债务。
The new consensus that government borrowing and spending is indeed an important part of stabilising an economy, and that interest rates are generally low enough to allow governments to manage this task at minimal cost, represents progress. Government borrowing is badly needed to deal with many of the world’s current woes. But this consensus should ideally include two additional planks: that the quality of deficit-spending still matters, and that governments should prepare for the possibility of an eventual change in the global interest-rate environment—much as 2020 has shown that you should prepare for any low-probability disaster.
新的共识是,政府的借贷和支出确实是稳定经济的重要组成部分,而且利率普遍低到足以使政府以最小的成本来完成这项任务,这代表了进步。人们迫切需要政府借贷来应对当前世界上许多困境。但是,理想情况下,这一共识还应包括另外两个方面:赤字支出的质量仍然很重要,并且各国政府应为全球利率环境最终发生变化的可能性做准备——就像2020年告诉我们的那样,你应该为任何低概率的灾难未雨绸缪。