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Factors Determining a ‘Safe’ Level of Public Debt

Dabrowski M.

Since 2008, the world economy has been facing consequences of the global financial crisis. One of them is rapid growth in public debt in most advanced economies, which resulted from an overoptimistic estimate of fiscal situation before the crisis, declining government revenue and increasing social expenditure during the crisis, costs of the banking system restructuring, countercyclical fiscal policies, etc.

For this reason, many governments are trying to determine a ‘safe’ level of fiscal deficit and public debt. However, this is not an easy task. There is no single standard of fiscal safety for all economies. Besides, a globalized economy and irregular business cycle make it difficult to find out in which phase of the cycle a given economy is at the moment, while this is essential to assess fiscal indicators.

Historical experience shows that default risk may materialize at different levels of public debt, sometimes seemingly very low. In fact, a ‘safe’ borrowing level is country-specific and depends on many factors and often unpredictable circumstances. However, given the tense situation in global markets, the ‘safe’ level of public debt is lower than it used to be a decade ago. Another argument for a cautious approach concerns a highly pro-cyclical nature of such measures as the fiscal deficit to GDP or public debt to GDP ratios.

Lessons of the latest crises also indicate importance of more accurate estimation of countries’ contingent fiscal liabilities, particularly of those relating to the stability in the financial sector. If looking into the future, a correct estimation of other contingent liabilities, particularly those related to social welfare systems (implicit debt of the public pension and health systems) are of primary importance in the context of the ageing society and population decline. These liabilities far exceed official statistics on the public debt in some counties. As a result, such statistics does not present an adequate picture of the nation's public debt and actual fiscal burden that will be imposed on the shoulders of the following generations of taxpayers.

Factors Determining a ‘Safe’ Level of Public Debt