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Financial Times: From Italy to the U.S., Utopia vs. Reality

Author: Martin Wolf, Distinguished Visiting Fellow for International Economics
July 13, 2011

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In the eurozone, the fiscal crisis is lapping on Italy's shores. In the US, the administration declares it will run out of funding early next month if the debt ceiling is not raised. Far fewer Europeans than Americans believe public sector defaults are beneficial. But important Europeans share with Republicans the view that there are still worse outcomes. For reluctant Europeans, the eurozone must not be a “transfer union”. For recalcitrant Republicans, taxes must not be raised. Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus – let right be done even if the world perishes – is the motto.

The fiscal crises we see are a legacy of the west's private and public sector debt binges of recent decades. As the McKinsey Global Institute tells us in an update of last year's study of the aftermath of the credit bubble, this is an early stage of a painful process of deleveraging in several economies (see chart). “If history is a guide,” noted the 2010 report, “we would expect many years of debt reduction in specific sectors of some of the world's largest economies, and this process will exert a significant drag on GDP growth.” So it is proving, with disappointment almost everywhere.

The link between private and public sector debt is intimate. In some countries, notably Greece, easy credit led to an upsurge in public sector borrowing. In others, notably Italy, it encouraged governments to relax attention to debt reduction: its primary fiscal budget (before interest) moved from a surplus of 6 per cent of gross domestic product in 1997, before joining the currency union, to 0.6 per cent in 2005. Elsewhere, the sudden end of private sector credit booms led directly to collapses in government revenue and surges in public spending: the US, UK, Spain and Ireland are examples.

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