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Government finances

政府財政

After the disease, the debt

先有疾病,后有債務

To cope with the expensive legacy of the pandemic, governments will have to find the right path between stimulus and restraint

為了應對大流行病造成的昂貴后果,政府必須在刺激與節制之間找到一條正確的道路




National leaders like to talk about the struggle against covid-19 as a war. Mostly this is a figure of speech, but in one respect they are right. Public borrowing in the rich world is set to soar to levels last seen amid the rubble and smoke of 1945. As the economy falls into ruins, governments are writing millions of cheques to households and firms in order to help them survive lockdowns. At the same time, with factories, shops and offices shut, tax revenues are collapsing. Long after the covid-19 wards have emptied, countries will be living with the consequences.

各國領導人喜歡把抗擊新冠肺炎描述為一場戰爭,這大致是打個比方。但從某種角度來看,他們說的沒錯。政府債務可能攀升至殘垣斷壁、硝煙彌漫的1945年水平。隨著經濟走向崩潰,各國政府正在給家庭和企業開出百萬計的支票,以幫助他們在封城中生存下來。與此同時,隨著工廠、商店、辦公室的關閉,稅收正在急劇下滑。當新冠肺炎疫情結束后,各國將長期面臨這些后果。

An astonishing deterioration in the public finances is unfolding (see article). America’s government is set to run a deficit of 15% of gdp this year—a figure that will go up if more stimulus is needed. Across the rich world, the imf says gross government debt will rise by $6trn, to $66trn at the end of this year, or from 105% of gdp to 122%—a greater increase than was seen in any year during the global financial crisis. If the lockdowns last longer, the load will be greater. Managing such colossal debts will burden Western societies for decades to come.

公共財政的驚人惡化正在逐漸顯現。今年美國政府的財政赤字可能達到GDP的15%,如果有必要進行更多的刺激,該數字還會進一步攀升??v觀世界發達國家,世界貨幣基金組織表示,政府總債務將增長6萬億美元,年底增至66萬億美元,相當于從GDP的105%增至122%,增幅超過全球金融危機期間的所有年份。封城的時間越久,債務就會越多。應對如此龐大的債務將給西方社會帶來數十年的負擔。

Few subjects in economics attract more scaremongering than government borrowing. The national-debt clock ticking near Times Square in New York has warned of imminent fiscal Armageddon since 1989. In fact a country’s public debt is not like a household’s credit-card balance. When the national debt is owned by its citizens, a country in effect owes money to itself. Debt may be high, but what matters is the cost of servicing it and, as long as interest rates are low, this is still cheap. In 2019 America spent 1.8% of gdp on debt interest, less than it did 20 years ago. In 2019 Japan’s gross public debt was already almost 240% of gdp, but there were few signs that it could not be sustained. In countries that print their own money, central banks can hold down interest rates by buying bonds, as they have in recent weeks on an unprecedented scale (the Federal Reserve has bought more Treasuries in five weeks than were issued, on net, in the year to March). Just now there is no risk of inflation, particularly since oil prices have collapsed. Most economists worry less that governments will borrow recklessly, than that they will be too timid because of an irrational fear of rising public debt. Inadequate fiscal support today risks pushing the economy into a spiral of decline.

在經濟學中,政府債務是最能吸引危言聳聽的話題。1989年以來,紐約時代廣場上滴答作響的國債鐘一直在警示人們迫在眉睫的財政末日。事實上,國家的公共債務不同于家庭的信用卡結欠。當公民持有國債時,國家其實是在欠自己錢,債務可能很高,但重要的是利息費用,只要維持低利率,利息就會很低。2019年,美國支出的債務利息占GDP的1.8%,低于20年前的水平。2019年,日本的公共債務總額高達GDP的240%,但沒有不可持續的跡象。在印制鈔票的國家,央行可通過購買國債的方式來壓制利率,最近幾周已達到前所未有的規模(美聯儲在五周內購買的國債已超過截至今年3月的一年凈發行的國債)。目前不存在通脹風險,油價暴跌以來尤為如此。多數經濟學家更擔心的不是政府肆無忌憚地舉債,而是公共債務日益攀升所帶來的莫名恐懼使政府過于膽怯。財政支持不足可能導致經濟日益衰退。



Governments will thus have to walk a treacherous path between stimulus today and prudence tomorrow. Success is not guaranteed. After the second world war countries shrank their debts over the course of decades, but only by using a bossy combination of high taxes on capital, financial repression (forcing domestic investors to hold debt at artificially low interest rates) and inflation, which erodes the real value of debts over time. A baby boom and rapidly rising levels of education made it easier for economies to grow their way out of debt. Japan has not faced a bond-market crisis since the 1990s, but its debt-to-gdp ratio has continued to rise. After the financial crisis in 2007-09 some European countries opted for budget cuts in order to cut debts, with mixed results and a big political backlash.

因此,各國政府必將在當前的刺激和未來的謹慎之間走一條有潛在風險的道路。這樣做不一定能成功。二戰結束后,各國在數十年間減少了債務,方式僅僅是專橫地征收高額資本稅、實施金融抑制政策(迫使本國投資者以人為壓低的利率持有國債)、利用通貨膨脹使債務的實際價值貶值。戰后的生育高峰期和迅速提高的教育質量使各國經濟比較輕松地走出了債務困境。上世紀九十年代以來,日本沒有再次爆發債券市場危機,但債務與國內生產總值的比例持續上升。2007-09年爆發金融危機后,一些歐洲國家為減少債務而采取了財政削減政策,結果喜憂參半,引發了嚴重的政治反彈。

The politics of deficit reduction will be toxic. The pandemic will increase calls for lavish spending, not belt-tightening, especially on medical services. Ageing populations mean that there will be surging demand for pension and health spending in the 2030s and 2040s. It will get more expensive to maintain public services, let alone improve them. Politicians who trim benefits for pensioners will be punished by legions of elderly voters. There will be less spare cash to fight future crises, such as climate change or even another pandemic.

削減赤字將成為政治毒藥。大流行病將使擴大而非緊縮開支的呼聲高漲,尤其在醫療服務領域。人口老齡化意味著到本世紀三四十年代,養老金和衛生支出的需求將激增。維持公共服務將變得更加昂貴,更不用說改善公共服務了。如果政客削減退休人員的福利,將遭到老年選民的集體懲罰。政府將沒有那么多閑錢去應對未來的各種危機,例如氣候變化、甚至另一場大流行病。

Faced with this daunting reality, rich-world governments will make a big mistake if they succumb to premature and excessive worries about budgets. While they are in the throes of the pandemic, the withdrawal of emergency support would be self-defeating.

面對可怕的現實,如果發達國家的政府過早過度地擔憂預算,那將釀成大錯。正當它們陷入大流行病困境時,取消應急的資金援助等于自我拆臺。



National-debt service

國債償還

Perhaps interest rates really will stay low while growth rebounds and inflation rises just slightly, easing the burden of debt. More likely is that living with high debts will be a nerve-racking and gruelling slog. Making budgets add up looks as if it will be a defining challenge of the post-covid world—one that today’s politicians have not yet even started to confront.

當經濟增長反彈,通脹率小幅上升時,或許利率真的會保持在低位,進而減少債務負擔。更有可能的是,背負高額債務將是一件既傷腦筋又折磨人的苦差事??磥韺崿F預算平衡將是后疫情時代的決定性挑戰——當今的政客甚至還沒開始直面這樣的挑戰。