Viva Ricardo!

Guy of these pages recently spoke to a “source” who has an interesting counter-take on the Italian economy and the Italian government’s debt problem to that frequently discussed here. Apparently, the feller says, there’s no chance of “an Argentinian-style blowout” because of the low levels of private debt.

The source is essentially arguing that Ricardian equivalence holds for Italy. That is to say, private and public savings ratios match each other-when the government borrows, the private sector saves, and vice versa. Hence the recovery path after a debt crisis would be that firms and households load up on debt to invest and consume, kick starting a Keynesian recovery.

Now, it’s an observable fact that the Italian government is up to its neck in debt and households are hoarding cash, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ricardian equivalence holds. Correlation does not imply causation, and Ricardian equivalence itself is anything but uncontroversial. In fact, it’s not so much an economic theory as a point for discussion, despite having been around almost as long as economics itself. There are some cases that support it – Israel in the 1980s being the classic – but a lot that don’t.

Arguments that fit the facts are always preferable to ones that don’t, but yer man is a braver man than me if he is basing his business decisions on this theory. Especially, I’m not at all clear on what the intermediate analysis/microfoundations are meant to be-how do we get from here to there? Presumably the Eurocrisis option would be one – out of the €, deep devaluation, export-led recovery and follow through to the domestic economy. But the pain of such a course would be epic. And it’s still worth pointing out that I still haven’t met a European business person who considers it even within the realm of the non-crazed (perhaps I don’t deal with enough Italians). More seriously, the panic and Weltuntergangsstimmung that would accompany such a course would have dramatically depressing effects on those ol’ animal spirits.

What of a forced Ricardian equivalence, about the only other story I can see that would satisfy our man’s argument? Imagine that the Italian government retires large quantities (perhaps massive quantities in the course of a debt crisis) of bonds from private and institutional investors and refinances them with the banks. Government paper is a reserve asset, and an increase in reserve assets should mean a multiple increase in credit creation to the private sector. One may recall that some monetarist-minded governments have been keen on manipulating the balance between T-bill-like assets held by banks and bonds held by funds and individuals in order to influence the creation of credit, usually in a deflationary direction – so why not in an inflationary direction?

It’s a bit like reversing the economic flux capacitor, and it’s certainly what in computing we would call a horrible, kludgy hack, and the inflationary bit could easily go well out of kilter, and the whole thing would be dependent on a lot of good will from a lot of banks, but it bears a passing resemblance to some proposals of Paul Krugman’s regarding Japan in the late 1990s. Edward Hugh will no doubt call attention to the similarities between the problems.

Does the weirdness of the solutions mark the optimism of the “source’s” argument? Or is it a long shot..but it might just work? A key number will clearly be the percentage of Italian government debt held by banks.