Debt and Economic Activity in the United States

35 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2004

See all articles by Benjamin M. Friedman

Benjamin M. Friedman

Harvard University - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: June 1981


This paper documents a long-standing stability in the relationship between outstanding debt and economic activity in the United States, and explores the implications for capital formation of several hypotheses that could explain this observed phenomenon. The aggregate of outstanding credit liabilities of all nonfinancial borrowers in the United States bears as close a relationship to U.S. non- financial economic activity as do the more familiar asset aggregates like the money stock (however measured) or the monetary base. This stability in the debt-to-income relationship reflects the net outcome of pronounced but offsetting movements of the public and private components of the total debt aggregate. Three different hypotheses provide potential explanations for this phenomenon. Two of these, one emphasizing taxpayers' actions and one based on credit market borrowing constraints, carry the implication that increases in government debt outstanding associated with financing budget deficits crowd out private financing and hence private capital formation. The third hypothesis, which emphasizes the portfolio preferences of lenders, implies that increased government financing will not crowd out private capital formation but will cause the private sector to shift from debt to equity financing.

Suggested Citation

Friedman, Benjamin M., Debt and Economic Activity in the United States (June 1981). NBER Working Paper No. w0704. Available at SSRN:

Benjamin M. Friedman (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Department of Economics ( email )

Littauer Center
Room 127
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-4246 (Phone)

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics