The Ominous Message in 2 Centuries of Global Public Finances

After our recent article showing the history of non-defense budget balances for large, developed countries, some readers wondered how our results might change with defense spending included.

Here’s a new chart showing total budget balances:

fiscal balance with defense

As in the first chart, we started in 1816 with four countries (the U.S., U.K., France and Netherlands) and then added seven more at different points in time, while weighting each country by its GDP. (Click here for data sources and more details.)

New chart, same story

The message is basically the same, regardless of whether you isolate non-defense budget balances as in the earlier chart or look at total balances as above.

That is, current fiscal risks are unlike any the world has ever seen.

Echoing our thoughts from the earlier post:

The [growing deficits of the past 50 years] suggest that we’ve never been in a predicament comparable to today. Essentially, the world’s developed countries are following the same path that’s failed, time and again, in chronically insolvent nations of the developing world.

Look at it this way: the chart shows that we’ve turned the economic development process inside out. Ideally, advanced economies would stick to the disciplined financial practices that helped make them strong between the early-19th and mid-20th centuries, while emerging economies would “catch up” by building similar track records. Instead, advanced economies are catching down and threatening to throw the entire world into the kind of recurring crisis mode to which you’re accustomed if you live in, say, Buenos Aires.

The diminishing ability of wars to explain public finances

The new chart shows more clearly how the purposes of public borrowing have evolved. In the 19th and early-20th centuries, governments borrowed mostly to fund wars. In fact, any military history is incomplete without consideration of warring nations’ access to capital. You can argue that government borrowing not only enables wars, but that the ability to borrow heavily is a major determinant of whether your army wins or loses, more important in many cases than military prowess.

(Niall Ferguson claims exactly this in his bestseller, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Are you interested in the Napoleonic Wars, U.S. Civil War and World War 1 – three periods of significant public borrowing as shown in the chart? Ferguson links the ultimate outcomes of each of these wars to the victors’ superior access to government bond investors.)

Fast forward to today, and deficits have broken free of the costs of tanks, bombs and warplanes. Considering current public finances, it’s hard to imagine another widespread war that doesn’t lead to financial mayhem. A surge in military spending would surely end any hopes that large, developed nations won’t eventually be forced into defaults and/or wealth confiscation.

Worse still, it’s looking more and more as though we’re headed for disaster even without a future spike in military spending. The risks of a severe fiscal crisis are obvious in our earlier chart showing non-defense budget balances, and they’re just as apparent with defense spending added back in.

Bonus chart

The chart below separates budget balances into two pieces – the non-defense portion (as in the earlier post) and defense spending. We’ll add more detail in the future, including a country-by-country breakdown of the underlying data.

fiscal balance ex-defense 2

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