The Value of Constraints on Discretionary Government Policy
This paper investigates how institutional constraints discipline the behavior of discretionary governments subject to an expenditure bias. The focus is on constraints implemented in actual economies: monetary policy targets, limits on the deficit and debt ceilings. For a variety of aggregate shocks considered, the best policy is to impose a minimum primary surplus of about half a percent of output. Most welfare gains from constraining government behavior during normal times, which to a large extent is sufficient to discipline policy in adverse times. Monetary policy targets are not generally ...
Lottery Loans in the Eighteenth Century
In the 18th century Britain frequently issued lottery loans, selling bonds whose size was determined by a draw soon after the sale. The probability distribution was perfectly known ex-ante and highly skewed. After the draw the bonds were identical (except for size) and indistinguishable from regular bonds. I collect market prices for the lottery tickets and show that investors were paying a substantial premium to be exposed to this purely artificial risk. I show that investors were well-to-do and included many merchants and bankers. I turn to cumulative prospect theory to make sense of these ...
Is Inflation Default? The Role of Information in Debt Crises
We consider a two-period Bayesian trading game where in each period informed agents decide whether to buy an asset ("government debt") after observing an idiosyncratic signal about the prospects of default. While second-period buyers only need to forecast default, first-period buyers pass the asset to the new agents in the secondary market, and thus need to form beliefs about the price that will prevail at that stage. We provide conditions such that coarser information in the hands of second-period agents makes the price of debt more resilient to bad shocks not only in the last period, ...
Optimal Public Debt with Life Cycle Motives
Public debt can be optimal in standard incomplete market models with infinitely lived agents, since the associated capital crowd-out induces a higher interest rate. The higher interest rate encourages individuals to save and, hence, better self-insure against idiosyncratic labor earnings risk. Even though individual savings behavior is a crucial determinant of the optimality of public debt, this class of economies abstracts from empirically observed life cycle savings patterns. Thus, this paper studies how incorporating a life cycle affects optimal public debt. We find that while the ...
A Tax Plan for Endogenous Innovation
In times when elevated government debt raises concerns about dimmer global growth prospects, we ask: How can the government provide incentives for innovation in a fiscally sustainable way? We address this question by examining the Ramsey problem of finding optimal tax and subsidy schemes in a model in which growth is endogenously sustained by risky innovation. We characterize the shadow value of growth and entry in the innovation sector. We find that a profit tax is required to replicate the first-best in order to balance the externalities associated with innovative activity. At the ...
Real Interest Rates, Inflation, and Default
This paper argues that the comovement between inflation and economic activity is an important determinant of real interest rates over time and across countries. First, we show that for advanced economies, periods with more procyclical inflation are associated with lower real rates, but only when there is no risk of default on government debt. Second, we present a model of nominal sovereign debt with domestic risk-averse lenders. With procyclical inflation, nominal bonds pay out more in bad times, making them a good hedge against aggregate risk. In the absence of default risk, procyclical ...
How to Starve the Beast: Fiscal Policy Rules
Countries have widely imposed fiscal rules designed to constrain government spending and ensure fiscal responsibility. This paper studies the effectiveness and welfare implications of revenue, deficit and debt rules when governments are discretionary and profligate. The optimal prescription is a revenue ceiling coupled with a balance budget requirement. For the U.S., the optimal revenue ceiling is about 15% of output, 3 percentage points below the postwar average, and yields welfare gains equivalent to 10% of consumption. Most of the benefits can still be reaped with a milder constraint or ...
How to Starve the Beast: Fiscal and Monetary Policy Rules
Societies often rely on simple rules to restrict the size and behavior of governments. When fiscal and monetary policies are conducted by a discretionary and profligate government, I find that revenue ceilings vastly outperform debt, deficit and monetary rules, both in effectiveness at curbing public spending and welfare for private agents. However, effective revenue ceilings induce an increase in deficit, debt and inflation. Under many scenarios, including recurrent adverse shocks, the optimal ceiling on U.S. federal revenue is about 15% of GDP, which leads to welfare gains for private ...
Optimal Taxation with Endogenous Default under Incomplete Markets
How are the optimal tax and debt policies affected if the government has the option to default on its debt? We address this question from a normative perspective in an economy with noncontingent government debt, domestic default and labor taxes. On one hand, default prevents the government from incurring future tax distortions that would come along with the service of the debt. On the other hand, default risk gives rise to endogenous credit limits that hinder the government's ability to smooth taxes. We characterize the fiscal policy and show how the option to default alters the near-unit ...
How Much Debt Does the U.S. Government Owe?
The U.S. government is often referred to as the world?s biggest debtor. But how much debt does it owe? A visit to the website of the U.S. Department of the Treasury yields a bewildering array of different measures of U.S. federal government debt. Although the gross debt of the U.S. federal government is approaching $18 trillion, the debt that is subject to the debt limit is a few billion dollars smaller, while debt in the hands of the public is less than $13 trillion.