Ken Rogoff wrote a very interesting FT oped on UK finances (FT original, Rogoff webpage if you can't see FT.)
The issue: Should we worry about huge sovereign debts of advanced countries? Or was the only problem with fiscal stimulus that it was not big enough?
A little history:
Yes, from the 1800s until the first world war, the UK was a global superpower that commanded vast colonial resources and investments. Over long periods, these foreign assets yielded returns well in excess of interest on debt. But comparing government debt ratios back then, when the UK was a massive net creditor, to debt ratios today, when British foreign liabilities exceed foreign assets, is utterly misleading. Moreover, back in the 1820s, the UK was pioneering the industrial revolution; things are not quite the same today. Back then, the UK did not have to worry about pension liabilities or existential threats to the banking system that could require massive injections of cash to fix. ...Being a UK bondholder has had its ups and downs.
During the 1930s, Britain defaulted on debt to the US accumulated during the first world war and its aftermath. ...
It is often stated that after the second world war the UK debt reached almost 250 per cent of gross domestic product and was brought down merely through growth and inflation. This is a myth ...
Then there is the high-inflation era of the 1970s – another de facto default. Last but not least, what about the UK’s serial dependence on International Monetary Fund bailouts from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s? This is hardly a country with an indestructible credit status. ...
Looking forward, an important point: a country needs to be substantially below its ultimate borrowing limit, or it loses its ability to fight crises going ahead.
..a euro collapse would have triggered a stampede out once investors realised that the UK banks and trade would be savaged, a flexible currency notwithstanding. In that scenario, UK leaders would have been forced to close massive budget deficits almost overnight. That would have been truly catastrophic austerity. ...Kan and Carmen Reinhart have been at the receiving end of Paul Krugman's tender commentaries lately, and I'm interested to see Ken taking up the issue. Krugman likes to lambaste people for "predictions" that he imagines they made which didn't come out. On the euro blowing up, Ken seems to be offering a taste of his own medicine, made more bitter by the fact that Krugman actually did say what Ken says he said:
We now know the euro did not collapse. [yet -- JC] With 20-20 hindsight, yes, the UK could have borrowed more. But we do not have hindsight at the moment decisions have to be taken.
...This was the big call – the one that everyone was focusing on. To state that credit risk was gone by 2010 is ludicrous. None other than The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman prognosticated the euro’s early demise regularly from April 2010 to July 2012. His big call has turned out – so far – to be dead wrong.I will be curious if we see more of that from Ken. Stay tuned.