Debt

Why Federal Deficits Are Not Always Bad

The federal government’s balance sheet is not like that of a private citizen’s, it shouldn’t always be balanced. There are certain times when running a deficit may be the best course of action. As a matter of fact, running a deficit is often a part of fiscal policy.

Federal deficits can help the government deal with the business cycle. The business cycle consists of four phases — growth, peak, recession, and trough/depression. In order to ease the economic tensions that occur during the business cycle, governments use deficits as a part of fiscal policy. The government runs the deficit by increasing expenditures either through buying goods, providing the public with subsidies, decreasing taxes, or some sort of combination of the three. The government’s increase in expenditures causes an increase in demand. This increase in demand leads to businesses experiencing increased profits. As a result, businesses do not lay off as many people during the recessionary phase.

On the other hand, if the federal government tried to always have a balanced budget, the business cycle would create larger fluctuations in the economy. For example, during the recessionary phase a larger numbers of workers would be laid off. However, federal deficits do have consequences. If the debt to GDP ratio is large enough then this could lead to problems like the ones seen in Greece. Additionally, there is actually not much reason to run a deficit when the economy is not in or near the recessionary phase.

So what about the US’ current debt situation. Although the US government does have debt, even when the US is not in the recessionary phase, the US has been able to handle its debt due to the strength of the US economy. The high revenue to debt ratio also allows more developed states, such as the US, to maintain higher levels of debt. Additionally, the US has been borrowing money at record lows, as a result the debt to GDP ratio should decrease over time. This means that the US may be able to wait longer to address its debt problems.

But how do we know when a state has too much debt? Investor confidence is one measure. Investor confidence often has a strong impact on the economy of states and can be a good way to determine how much debt is too much debt. For example, since interest rates, which have a relationship with investor confidence, on US treasury bonds are relatively low it would be reasonable to say that the US’ stability and developed economy outweigh the US’ high debt levels. However, this does not mean that the US can just racket up debt. The US debt will have to be addressed. If it continues to rise without being addressed then eventually the debt will get too large and lead to problems for the US economy, such as decreased employment and decreased levels of investment.

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The Problems in China’s Economy

China’s economy has been slowing down. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported that the GDP of China’s economy has dropped from 7.2% at the end of 2014 to 6.4% in June 2016. Despite China’s economic slow down, the Chinese economy is still doing fine. However, there are some problems in China’s economy, including the misallocation of capital and rising private debt. These problems are important to analyse because both could create larger economic problems for China that could lead to financial instability.

The Misallocation Capital

In an effort to increase economic activity in China, the Chinese government has increased the number of new project approvals. This has led to capital being over-allocated to the production of coal plants. For example, the New York Times has explained that several coal plants are being built-in China that could potentially operate at 5,500 hours per year. However, the amount of coal plants in China surpass demand by so much that these coal plants operated at an average of only 4,300 hours. Next year, these factories are expected to operate at an average of 3,600 hours. It is important to note that the Chinese government has been trying to fix this misallocation of capital. Beijing has published guidelines to stop the approval of new coal plants, however, the new guidelines do not apply to coal plants currently under construction.

Ghost cities are another result of the misallocation of capital in China. Ghost-cities are cities that have nearly zero inhabitants. In China, rapid development and the misallocation of capital has led to the development of many ghost cities. Other states going through rapid development, including Brazil and India, have also built ghost towns and cities, but not to the same degree as China. This is because in China municipal governments can easily and cheaply buy rural land to build cities. According to the Wall Street Journal, this leads to government officials building cities for prestige or to provide jobs to friends. Also, the ghost cities built-in China do not cater to the needs of the general population. For example, the cities do not have many necessities, such as schools or hospitals.

Conch Bay is a ghost city in China. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images/NPR)[3]

Conch Bay is a ghost city in China. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images/NPR)[3]

Growing Debt

In order to ensure the growth of China’s economy, Beijing has continued to increase demand by increasing credit. In other words, the Chinese government has continued to encourage corporations, many of which are state-owned enterprises, to borrow more money so the corporations can spend more money. This may have increased the size of China’s economy, but it also increased Chinese debt. In fact, The Economist explains that at the end of 2015 private debt was about 240% of GDP. With this increase in debt, private companies are less able to invest in projects, due to the increase in interest payments that come along with an increase in debt. Additionally, many state-owned enterprises are not earning enough to service their debts.

Protection From Financial Instability

Just like any other state’s economy, China’s economy has its faults. China’s misallocation of capital promotes wasteful spending and increases debt. Additionally, growing debt in China could cause a decrease in aggregate demand. Both of these factors could lead to a recession or could cause other economic problems. However, China’s GDP is still high when compared with many other states. The Chinese government also has a surplus, a large amount of foreign exchange reserves, and China’s debt is mostly owned domestically. All of these factors protect China from financial instability. But financial instability in China is not implausible. It is important to look at the problems in China’s economy and research the best policies to address issues in China’s economy. If these problems continue to go unaddressed then there will be a higher likelihood of financial instability affecting China and the World in the future.

Image: The Economist, BIS