Pyramid Leverage

It is commonly accepted that “true” economic growth is the growth driven by technological innovation, and it is roughly approximated by a country’s GDP per capita growth. However, as I argued in an earlier post, short-term economic growth numbers could be distorted by monetary and fiscal policy choices. For example, a government may boost short-term GDP numbers by borrowing money through the sale of its long-term debt (say, twenty year bonds). By doing so, it employs the fundamental “time machine” feature of finance, which allows for the exchange of an uncertain future payoff for a certain payoff today. Ultimately, the repayment of the long-term government debt would be driven by the overall economy twenty years from now, i.e. people working, producing, consuming, and paying taxes then. Some of these people may not even be born today – how can we know for sure the number of workers and how productive they will be twenty years from now?

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True Economic Growth vs. a Pyramid Scheme

Once you start thinking about economic growth, it’s hard to think about anything else.

– Robert E. Lucas

Q: What is the difference between maintaining sound fiscal policy and running a pyramid scheme with respect to government debt?

A: It all depends on the economy’s predicted growth rate.

What is economic growth, where does it come from, and how do we measure it? These are simple questions, but it is fundamentally important to get them right in order to understand what is ahead for the U.S. economy, and how its growth relates to government fiscal policy. Here I would like to take a look at how we measure economic growth, and argue that sometimes true economic growth may not be what it seems, at least in the short term.

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