The real effects of debt Stephen G Cecchetti, M S Mohanty and Fabrizio Zampolli* September 2011 Link here →The real effects of debt Abstract At moderate levels, debt improves welfare and enhances growth. But high levels can be damaging. When does debt go from good to bad? We address this question using a new dataset that includes the level of government, non-financial corporate and household debt in 18 OECD countries from 1980 to 2010. Our results support the view that, beyond a certain level, debt is a drag on growth. For government debt, the threshold is around 85% of GDP. The immediate implication is that countries with high debt must act quickly and decisively to address their fiscal problems. The longer-term lesson is that, to build the fiscal buffer required to address extraordinary events, governments should keep debt well below the estimated thresholds. Our examination of other types of debt yields similar conclusions. When corporate debt goes beyond 90% of GDP, it becomes a drag on growth. And for household debt, we report a threshold around 85% of GDP, although the impact is very imprecisely estimated. Conclusions While the attention of policymakers following the recent crisis has been on reducing systemic risk stemming from a highly leveraged financial system, the challenges extend beyond that. Our examination of debt and economic activity in industrial countries leads us to conclude that there is a clear linkage: high debt is bad for growth. When public debt is in a range of 85% of GDP, further increases in debt may begin to have a significant impact on growth: specifically, a further 10 percentage point increase reduces trend growth by more than one tenth of 1 percentage point. For corporate debt, the threshold is slightly lower, closer to 90%, and the impact is roughly half as big. Meanwhile for household debt, our best guess is that there is a threshold at something like 85% of GDP, but the estimate of the impact is extremely imprecise. A clear implication of these results is that the debt problems facing advanced economies are even worse than we thought. Given the benefits that governments have promised to their populations, ageing will sharply raise public debt to much higher levels in the next few decades. At the same time, ageing may reduce future growth and may also raise interest rates, further undermining debt sustainability. So, as public debt rises and populations age, growth will fall. As growth falls, debt rises even more, reinforcing the downward impact on an already low growth rate. The only possible conclusion is that advanced countries with high debt must act quickly and decisively to address their looming fiscal problems. The longer they wait, the bigger the negative impact will be on growth, and the harder it will be to adjust. It is important to note that our finding of a threshold for the effects of public debt on growth does not imply that authorities should aim at stabilising their debt at this level. On the contrary, since governments never know when an extraordinary shock will hit, it is wise to aim at keeping debt at levels well below this threshold. As with government debt, we have known for some time that when the private sector becomes highly indebted, the real economy can suffer. But, what should we do about it? Current efforts focus on raising the cost of credit and making funding less readily available to would-be borrowers. Maybe we should go further, reducing both direct government subsidies and the preferential treatment debt receives. In the end, the only way out is to increase saving.