I blogged about debt and governance a few days ago, suggesting in a highly simplistic fashion that we should look at government debt levels as an indicator of governance. The argument is simple: Governments are authorized by citizens to raise revenue through debt when it makes sense and to manage the debt exposure to ensure the country's fiscal dependence.
I reflected on data that showed developing countries have lower debt to GDP levels than many developed countries do. This is a reversal of the past, where developing countries typically found themselves in debt problems that were arguably construed as reflecting a failure of governance.
Now, what do we make of high debt figures in developed countries? Is it also a failure of governance? Philipp Krause responded to my simple post by saying that it may be the exact opposite. If governments like Japan and Italy can borrow at cheap rates to levels of 150 - 200 percent of GDP, surely it shows that they are seriously creditworthy and the government is just getting better leverage in financial markets.
Certainly an interesting argument. Of course, there is a cost of borrowing, and every cent one pays in servicing debt is money that could be spent differently. Some countries manage this cost better than others, by structuring their debt appropriately, etc. Even when they do this, of course, many argue that governments are just deferring the debt costs to future generations. And even well managed debt portfolios can become costly in the short run as well.
This is important because today's governments are not elected by future generations, and governance is most simply about exercising authority on behalf of those who gave it to you... today's electorate. Unless, of course, today's electorate indicate a concern for the future.
In reflecting on this, I'm going to suggest that we look at two dimensions of 'debt and governance' in today's terms when thinking about this issue.
- The first dimension is the amount of debt a government has incurred, as a percentage of GDP, relative to peers.
- The second dimension is the cost of that debt in today's terms, measured as the percentage of revenues collected, also relative to peers.
The combination of these dimensions is shown, for about thirty of the world's wealthiest nations, in the figure below. (All data from the World Bank's World Development Indicators).
The first thing I see in this figure is that there is a positive relationship between the size of a country's debt relative to GDP and its servicing costs—at least in this one period cross section. In other words: the bigger a country's debt today, the more a country tends to pay today. So, a country like the USA pays about 11 cents of every dollar raised revenue on interest to service its debt—compared with Sweden where less than 3 ӧren are spent n interest, out of every Krona collected as revenue.
I like the table as a way of indicating the governance challenges of a given country—note I am not saying that the indicator should be construed as reflecting good or bad governance. There are sixteen quadrants in the way I show the countries and a country's location says different things about its debt governance:
- Countries in the bottom quadrant are experiencing debt levels and debt service costs that are lower than the average for wealthy OECD countries. At a stretch one might say the debt here is being conservatively governed (which conservatives might call good governance). Sweden and New Zealand are in this quadrant in 2010.
- As one moves up and to the right you are looking at countries with higher than average levels of debt and costs of debt servicing (as percentage of revenues). The United States fits in this area, where its debt levels are abut twenty percent higher than the average in wealthy countries (measured as a percentage of GDP, of course). Its debt service costs are just over twice the average in wealthier countries (at over 11.2% of revenues collected). The countries around the United States are in a riskier part of the graph than Sweden and New Zealand in 2010. Sweden was in this area in 1996—when it was coming out of its 1992 financial crisis. This space might be called a managed risk governance situation where government is extending its authority to borrow and taking the short term hit of extra payments because it can access funds that it believes are needed. In Sweden the resources were needed to get out of a financial crisis that it has now moved past. In the USA the authorities argue that the higher debt is also needed to get out of crisis. The question is whether this managed risk situation will pan out.
- As one moves further right and up countries have higher debt and debt service costs. The inhabitants of these quadrants are few. Iceland, Italy, Greece, and Japan. These countries are in a high risk governance situation where the burden of debt is high and the current cost of debt is also high. Countries in this situation may be able to access additional debt (for now) because of their peculiar economic circumstances (Japan is still one of the world's biggest creditors, for instance, and much of its debt is domestic) but they may also have gone into a debt crisis situation where they cannot access conventional debt (Greece). Risky territory, that may be accepted by citizens but is still costly—now.
For those who like to criticize the USA debt situation and suggest that Armageddon is days away, the graph should show something simple: THE USA IS NOT GREECE. It should also show that the UA is not Sweden, or any other conservatively governed debt regime. The question is whether this is a problem or not, and if governance strategies should change as a result of the USA's position.
For those who are interested in governance, this final question is of utmost importance. This is because it is the kind of product that we should be developing from governance indicators. Strategic questions to guide comparative policymaking, not singular measures that suggest whether a country exhibits 'good' or 'bad' governance. The contextual nature of governance prohibits such simple measures and we should stop pretending these kinds of measures are useful.