Reducing Public Debt: The Experience of Advanced Economies over the Last 70 Years

58 Pages Posted: 25 Jun 2019

See all articles by Sofia Bernardini

Sofia Bernardini

Osservatorio sui Conti Pubblici Italiani

Carlo Cottarelli

Osservatorio sui Conti Pubblici Italiani; Bocconi University - Department of Economics

Giampaolo Galli

Osservatorio sui Conti Pubblici Italiani dell'Università Cattolica, Roma; Luiss-Sep

Carlo Valdes

Osservatorio sui Conti Pubblici Italiani

Date Written: June 16, 2019

Abstract

This paper investigates the episodes of public debt reduction in advanced economies since the Second World War. We find 30 episodes of large reductions in the public debt-to-GDP ratio. Four main approaches succeeded in lowering the debt ratio. First, after the end of WWII, high and unexpected inflation eroded a large share of public debt. Second, during the Bretton Woods era, a mix of financial repression, high economic growth and moderate inflation helped reducing public debt. Third, since the 1980s, several advanced economies followed orthodox fiscal adjustments, namely improving their primary balance by reducing expenditure and/or raising taxes. The fourth approach (debt restructuring) was implemented only in one case: Greece in 2011-12. One key finding of our paper is that debt reduction has never been achieved by relaxing fiscal policy (cutting taxes or increasing expenditure), hoping that this would set in motion a growth process sufficiently strong to lower the debt ratio (the so-called “denominator approach” which has recently become fashionable in some countries, including Italy). The empirical evidence of the last 70 years suggests that running a sufficiently strong primary surplus is the only viable option to reduce public debt ratio nowadays, particularly in countries that are part of the euro area.

Keywords: Public Debt, Fiscal Adjustment, Debt Substainability, Primary Surplus

JEL Classification: H63, H62, H12, H60

Suggested Citation

Bernardini, Sofia and Cottarelli, Carlo and Galli, Giampaolo and Valdes, Carlo, Reducing Public Debt: The Experience of Advanced Economies over the Last 70 Years (June 16, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3405018 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3405018

Sofia Bernardini

Osservatorio sui Conti Pubblici Italiani ( email )

Largo Agostino Gemelli 1
Milan
Italy

Carlo Cottarelli

Osservatorio sui Conti Pubblici Italiani ( email )

Largo Gemelli, 1
Via Necchi 9
Milan, MI 20123
Italy

Bocconi University - Department of Economics ( email )

Via Gobbi 5
Milan, 20136
Italy

Giampaolo Galli (Contact Author)

Osservatorio sui Conti Pubblici Italiani dell'Università Cattolica, Roma ( email )

Largo Francesco Vito, 1
Roma, 00168
Italy
3358315044 (Phone)

Luiss-Sep ( email )

Via O. Tommasini 1
Rome, Roma 00100
Italy

Carlo Valdes

Osservatorio sui Conti Pubblici Italiani ( email )

Largo Agostino Gemelli 1
Milan
Italy

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