Sat Dec 22, 2012, 07:54 AM
dkf (37,305 posts)
Will central banks cancel government debt?
As the IMF meetings close in Tokyo this weekend, it is obvious that governments are struggling to find the correct balance between controlling public debt, which now exceeds 110 per cent of GDP for the advanced economies, and boosting the rate of economic growth. The former objective requires more budgetary tightening, while the latter requires the opposite. Is there any way around this?
One radical option now being discussed is to cancel (or, in polite language, “restructure”) part of the government debt that has been acquired by the central banks as a consequence of quantitative easing (QE). After all, the government and the central bank are both firmly within the public sector, so a consolidated public sector balance sheet would net this debt out entirely.
This option has always been viewed as extremely dangerous on inflationary grounds, and has never been publicly discussed by senior central bankers, as far as I am aware . However, Adair Turner, the chairman of the UK Financial Services Agency, and reportedly a candidate to become the next governor of the Bank of England, made a speech last week that said more unorthodox options, including “further integration of different aspects of policy”, might need to be considered in the UK.
Two separate journalists (Robert Peston of the BBC and Simon Jenkins of The Guardian) said that Lord Turner’s “private view” is that some part of the Bank’s gilts holdings might be cancelled in order to boost the economy. Lord Turner distanced himself in public from this suggestion on Saturday. However, the notion will now be widely discussed. It is easy to see how the idea could appeal to a finance minister facing the need to tighten fiscal policy during a recession in order to bring down the public debt ratio.
Why is this such a radical idea? No one in the private sector would lose out from the cancellation of these bonds, which have already been purchased at market prices by the central bank in exchange for cash. The loser, however, would be the central bank itself, which would instantly wipe out its capital base if such a course were followed. The crucial question is whether this matters and, if so, how.
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