Martin Wolf: Lessons from History on Public Debt

Martin Wolf is a regular columnist for the Financial Times and hosts FT's Economics Forum.

What happens if a large, high-income economy, burdened with high levels of debt and an overvalued, fixed exchange rate, attempts to lower the debt and regain competitiveness? This question is of current relevance, since this is the challenge confronting Italy and Spain. Yet, as a chapter in the International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook demonstrates, a relevant historical experience exists: that of the UK between the two world wars. This proves that the interaction between attempts at "internal devaluations" and the dynamics of debt are potentially lethal. Moreover, the plight of Italy and Spain is, in many ways, worse than the UK’s was. The latter, after all, could go off the gold standard; exit from the eurozone is far harder. Again, the UK had a central bank able and willing to reduce interest rates. The European Central Bank may not be able and willing to do the same for Italy and Spain.

The UK emerged from the first world war with public debt of 140 per cent of gross domestic product and prices more than double the prewar level. The government resolved both to return to the gold standard at the prewar parity, which it did in 1925, and to pay off the public debt, to preserve creditworthiness. Here was a country fit for the Tea Party.

To achieve its objectives, the UK implemented tight fiscal and monetary policies. The primary fiscal surplus (before interest payments) was kept near 7 per cent of GDP throughout the 1920s. This was, in turn, accomplished by the "Geddes Axe", after a commission chaired by Sir Eric Geddes. This recommended slashing government spending in precisely the way today’s believers in "expansionary austerity" recommend. Meanwhile, the Bank of England raised interest rates to 7 per cent in 1920. The aim of this was to support the return to the prewar parity. Coupled with the consequent deflation, the result was extraordinarily high real interest rates. This, then, was how the self-righteous fools in the British establishment greeted the hapless survivors of the hellish war.

So how did this commitment to fiscal famine and monetary necrophilia work?..

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