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The debt question facing Janet Yellen: How much is too much?
What to expect from Janet Yellen’s economic policy
Hoover Institution senior fellow in economics John Taylor provides insight into how economic policy, the value of the U.S. dollar, regulations, taxes and U.S.-China relations will look while Janet Yellen is at the Treasury.
A big question hangs over Janet Yellen this week at her confirmation hearing to become U.S. Treasury secretary: How much debt is too much?
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In the past four years, U.S. government debt held by the public has increased by $7 trillion to $21.6 trillion. President-elect Joe Biden has committed to a spending program that could add trillions more in the year ahead. At 100.1% of gross domestic product, the debt already exceeds the annual output of the economy, putting the U.S. in company with economies including Greece, Italy and Japan.
WHO IS JANET YELLEN?
When Ms. Yellen served in the Clinton administration as Chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, she was among those who pushed for a balanced budget. Today, she has joined, cautiously, an emerging consensus concentrated on the left that more short-term borrowing is needed to help the economy, even without concrete plans to pay it back. Central to the view is the expectation that interest rates will remain low for the foreseeable future, making it more affordable to finance the borrowing.
The Biden administration will now contend with progressives who want even more spending, and conservatives who say the government is tempting fate by adding to its swollen balance sheet. Ms. Yellen’s challenge, if confirmed, will be to keep Democrats together and persuade some Republicans to come along.
Ms. Yellen, who will be a top economic adviser to Mr. Biden, is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee, which will vote on her nomination. She served as top White House economist in the 1990s and Federal Reserve chairwoman in the 2010s. Confirmation of Ms. Yellen as Treasury secretary would make her the first person to achieve such a trifecta of economic leadership roles.
Ms. Yellen would be managing the nation’s debt when the economic consensus has flipped. In the 1990s, economists argued that surpluses would push down long-term interest rates and encourage private-sector borrowing and investment. Government borrowing, this view held, crowded out the private sector. The strategy seemed to work. The U.S. saw an economic boom, with the longest expansion on record at the time, fueled by technology investment.
After years of low inflation and interest rates near zero, more economists say the government should be borrowing to keep the economy going because the private sector isn’t. With borrowing costs expected to remain low and the pandemic-stricken economy still weak, temporary increases in deficits aren’t only tolerable but desirable if they help strengthen the recovery, the thinking goes.
In past times, the Fed carried the load by cutting short-term interest rates, allowing the private sector to borrow cheaply. But it has already cut rates to zero.