But why is borrowing so cheap? Where’s the money coming from? The answer is private savings that have nowhere else to go. When we finally get data on what’s happening now, we’ll surely see a sharp rise in private saving, as people stop buying what they can’t, and a fall in private investment, because who’s going to build houses or office parks in a plague?
So the private sector is going to be running a huge financial surplus that’s available for government borrowing. And this is no time to worry, even slightly, about the level of government debt.
Still, the pandemic will eventually end. Will there be a debt hangover?
From the point of view of government solvency, none at all. We live in a world in which interest rates are consistently below the growth rate, so that government debt melts instead of snowballing. The government won’t have to pay back the money it’s borrowing, just return to a sustainable level of deficits (not zero) and let the debt/GDP ratio decline over time.
There might, however, be a slight macroeconomic issue when the pandemic ends. The private sector will have added several trillion dollars to its wealth via more or less forced saving; between that wealth increase and, perhaps, pent-up demand, there might — might — be some inflationary overheating when things return to something like normal.
This may be a nonissue in an era of secular stagnation, when we might welcome the extra demand. Even if it is an issue, however, it’s unlikely, given the numbers, to be something the Fed can’t contain with modestly higher interest rates. You could imagine a world in which the costs of the immediate crisis eventually require some future fiscal austerity, but I don’t think we’re living in that world.
Let me summarize where we are. We’re facing a period of unknown length when much of the economy can and should be shut down. The principal goal of policy during this period should not be to boost GDP, but to alleviate the hardship facing those deprived of their normal incomes. And the government can simply borrow the money it needs to do that.
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