Inflation – How NOT to eradicate the deficit.

Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman makes a sensible comparison of the debt crisis in Britain with Greece in the New York Times.

His major error to say that an advantage for Britain of retaining its own currency is in possessing the ability to reduce its real debt levels through inflation. However, to do so could be quite dangerous for the economic health of Britain for two reasons linked to a simple fact. Nominal interest rates tend to follow inflation so real interest rates tend not to be negative for long.

1. Borrowing for house purchase tends to be on variable interest mortgages. Fix rate mortgages are uncommon. Assume inflation rose to 10% (halving the real value of debt every 7 years). People would, in the short-term see monthly repayments more than double. My own monthly repayment mortgage (lower than average) would go up from 20% of income to 50%. The impact would cause house prices to fall again and consumer spending to plummet. So far the UK has avoided the house price crash of the 1990 to 1992, when tens of thousands of homes were repossessed. Mortgage debt is relatively higher now than then.

2. If inflation took off before the deficit was much reduced, the average rate of interest on the national debt would increase rapidly. This could mean in the short term the real cost of interest payments could increase, increasing the primary surplus. Further, the experience in Britain both in the late 1980s and mid 1990s is that after inflation, real interest rates remain high for a long period.

Possessing a constraint is a positive advantage of the euro. However it is only feasible if member nations had stuck to the original rule of maintaining the government deficit to less than 3% of GDP. However, it did not work without an additional rule – to keep the budget in a small surplus when the economy was at, or above, the long-term growth rate of the economy – the project was bound to fail in a deep recession.

Hopi Sen is aggrieved, with a slight justification, that Paul Krugman makes similar points to his post of a day before.

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