History shows that high levels of government debt are frequently associated with inflation. The reason for this seems clear enough. At some point, maturing debt needs to paid back. At high enough levels of debt, rolling the debt over is no longer feasible. Cutting back government spending and raising taxes is politically difficult. The easy way out is simply to print new money. As the money supply expands, inflation resuts.
The rough logic described above would seem to fit the experience of many smaller economies that find themselves under fiscal pressure. But things may not work so simply for a select few dominant economies. Japan appears to be one example; and the U.S. another.
Let us consider the U.S. Unlike most other economies, there appears to be a huge worldwide demand for U.S. Treasuries and U.S. dollars (which can be thought of as zero-interest Treasuries). A large scale increase in the supply of these government debt instruments need not lead to a depreciate in their value if there is a correspondingly large scale increase in the worldwide demand for these objects. What is the evidence that this may be happening?
Foreigners Snap Up Treasuries Even as US Debt Keeps Rising
But why should this be so? What accounts for what appears to be an insatiable demand for US debt, especially in the wake of the recent financial crisis?
Ricardo Caballero of MIT offers some hints in a very interesting piece entitled: On the Macroeconomics of Asset Shortages. After reading this paper, I started thinking in the following way. Tell me what you think.
There is a high and growing demand for low-risk assets, both as a store of value, and as collateral objects in payment systems (e.g., repo and credit derivatives markets). This growth has exploded over the last 20 years or so; and stems from the demand from emerging economies and innovations in the financial sector. There is a worldwide "shortage" of good quality (low-risk) assets, like U.S. Treasuries (which explains their relatively low yield). Indeed, many of the innovations in the financial sector can be interpreted as the private sector's response to this shortage: the creation of "low-risk" tranches of MBSs allowing these objects to substitute for U.S. Treasuries as collateral in the rapidly expanding repo market.
The recent financial crisis was centered in the repo market. Very suddenly, agents in the repo market were no longer willing to accept MBS as collateral (or if they did, at very large "haircuts"). The demand for U.S. Treasuries exploded (I seem to recall a day when their yields actually went negative). At the same time, there was a worldwide "flight to quality;" which again, manifested itself as large increase in the demand for (relatively safe) U.S. Treasuries.
If this is more or less true, then the implication is this: The massive increase in the supply U.S. Treasury debt may very be "socially optimal" in the sense that the U.S. government is simply supplying the world with an asset that is in very high demand (which, in turn, means that the demanders obvious find some value in the existence of such an asset). To the extent that this "new demand regime" remains stable, the added supply of U.S. Treasuries will impose no financial burden on the U.S. (indeed, they make off like bandits, as the Treasuries are ultimately purchased by exporting goods and services to the U.S.).
The million dollar question, of course, is whether the high world demand for U.S. debt will persist long into the future (and whether the U.S. government will "overissue" debt beyond what is called for by this new high-demand regime). Who knows what will happen. But it appears to me that IF the U.S. government plays its cards right, it may very well enjoy its higher debt levels without the prospect of inflation. U.S. citizens will benefit (from the sales of Treasuries for goods) and the world will be grateful to hold a stable asset.
Well, maybe. But that was a big IF. What could possibly go wrong?