Throughout history, which methods of reducing government debt have proven to be the most successful? The answers may not be what you expect.

Many Choices
Fiscal policy is one of those areas where everyone has an opinion but few people can agree on any given idea. While reducing debt and stimulating the economy are the general goals of most governments in developed economies, achieving those goals often involves tactics that appear to be mutually exclusive and sometimes downright contradictory.

Bonds
Take for example the issuance of government debt. Governments often issue bonds to get money. This enables them to avoid raising taxes and provides money to stimulate the economy by public spending, theoretically generating additional tax income from prosperous businesses and taxpayers. It seems like a logical approach, but keep in mind that the government must pay interest to its creditors and at some point the borrowed money must be repaid. Historically, issuing debt has provided an economic boost to various countries, but in and of itself has not been particularly effective in directly reducing long-term government debt.

When the economy is in pain, such as suffering from high levels of unemployment, governments can also seek to stimulate the economy by buying the very bond they have issued themselves. For example, the Fed implemented quantitative easing a couple of times since November 2008 to buy large amounts of government securities and other financial securities to spur economic growth and aid recovery from the financial crisis in 2007-2008. In the short-term, there are many experts who favor this tactic. Longer term, buying one's own debt has not proved to be any more effective than borrowing one's way to prosperity by issuing bonds.

Interest Rate Manipulation
Maintaining low interest rates is another way governments seek to stimulate the economy, generate tax revenue and, ultimately, reduce the national debt. Low interest rates make it easy for individuals and businesses to borrow money. In turn, the borrowers spend that money on goods and services, which creates jobs and tax revenues. Low interest rates have been employed by the Unites States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and other nations with some degree of success. That noted, interest rates kept at or near zero for extended periods of time have not proved to be a panacea for debt-ridden governments.

Spending Cuts
Canada faced a nearly double-digit budget deficit in the 1990s. By instituting deep budget cuts (20% or more within four years), the nation reduced its budget deficit to zero within three years and cut its public debt by one-third within five years. The country did this without raising taxes.

In theory, others countries could emulate this example. In reality, the beneficiaries of tax-payer fueled spending often balk at proposed cuts. Politicians are voted out of office when their constituents are angry, so they often lack the political will to make necessary cuts. Decades of political wrangling over the Social Security program in the United States is a prime example of this, with politicians avoiding action that would anger voters. In extreme cases, such as Greece in 2011, protesters take to the streets when then the government spigot is turned off.

Raise Taxes
Tax increases are a common tactic. Despite the frequency of the practice, most nations face large and growing debts. It is likely that this is largely due to the failure to cut spending. When cash flows increase and spending continues to rise, the increased revenues make little difference to the overall debt level.

Cut Spending and Raise Taxes
Sweden was close to financial ruin by 1994. By the late 90s the country had a balanced budget through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. U.S. debt was paid down in 1947, 1948 and 1951 by Harry Truman. President Dwight D. Eisenhower managed to reduce government debt in 1956 and 1957. Spending cuts and tax increases play a role in both efforts. (For related reading, see Do Tax Cuts Stimulate The Economy?)

Pro Business/Pro Trade
A pro business, pro trade approach is another way nations can reduce their debt burdens. Saudi Arabia reduced its debt burden from 80% of Gross Domestic Product in 2003 to just 10.2% in 2010 by selling oil.

Bailout
Getting rich nations to forgive your debts or hand you cash is a strategy that has been employed more than a few times. Many nations in Africa have been the beneficiaries of debt forgiveness. Unfortunately, even this strategy has its faults. For example, in the late 1980s Ghana's debt burden was significantly reduced by debt forgiveness. In 2011 the country is once again deeply in debt. Greece, which had been given billions of dollars in bailout funds in 2010-2011, was not much better after the initial rounds of cash infusions. (U.S. bailouts date all the way back to 1792. Learn how the biggest ones affected the economy. For more, see Top 6 U.S. Government Financial Bailouts.)

Default
Defaulting on the debt, which can including going bankrupt and or restructuring payments to creditors is a common and often successful strategy for debt reduction. North Korea, Russia and Argentina have all employed this strategy.

Controversy with Every Method
To quote Mark Twain, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." Nowhere is this more true that when it comes to government, debt and fiscal policy.

Debt reduction and government policy are incredibly polarizing political topics. Critics of every position take issues with nearly all budget and debt reduction claims, arguing about flawed data, improper methodologies, smoke and mirrors accounting and countless other issues. For example, while some authors claim that U.S. debt has never gone down since 1961, others claim is has fallen multiple times since then. Similar conflicting arguments and data to support them can be found for nearly every aspect of any discuss about federal debt reduction.

While there are a variety of methods countries have employed at various times and with various degrees of success, there is no magic formula that works equally well for every nation in every instances. Just as spending cuts and tax hikes have demonstrated success, default has worked for more than few nations (at least if the yardstick of success is debt reduction rather than good relations with the global banking community). Overall, perhaps the best strategy is the one espoused by Benjamin Franklin when he said "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." (For related reading ,see Breaking Down The U.S. Budget Deficit.)

Related Articles
  1. Insurance

    The Government And Risk: A Love-Hate Relationship

    Though the U.S. government can help its citizens by subsidizing risky loans, the costs always come back to the taxpayers.
  2. Economics

    Debt Monetization: A Nearsighted Government Policy?

    We look at whether this financial practice benefits a government in the long term.
  3. Bonds & Fixed Income

    A Look At National Debt And Government Bonds

    Learn the functions of the U.S. Treasury, and find out how and why it issues debt.
  4. Bonds & Fixed Income

    The Risks Of Sovereign Bonds

    Sovereign debt can play an important role in providing international diversification to individual investors.
  5. Budgeting

    Current Account Deficits: Government Investment Or Irresponsibility?

    Deficit can be a sign of trouble for some countries, and of health for others. Find out what it means when more funds are exiting than entering a nation.
  6. Investing News

    China's Government to Stop Intervening in Stock Markets

    China’s stock market, measured by Shanghai Composite Index, lost about 17% of its value in the first three days of week ending August 28, 2015 before recovering its value by 11% in the last two ...
  7. Investing News

    Timing of the Fed Interest Rates Hike

    Until the beginning of August, Fed watchers expected the central bank to raise rates in September. However, recent news pertaining to China’s slowing economy and its devaluation of the yuan have ...
  8. Economics

    A Look at Greece’s Messy Fiscal Policy

    Investigate the muddy fiscal policy, tax problems, and inability to institute austerity that created the Greek crises in 2010 and 2015.
  9. Economics

    Will North and South Korea Ever Reunite?

    North and South Korea have been divided for over six decades. Some analysts think the two countries could reunify within the next 10 years.
  10. Economics

    The Top 9 Things to Know About Hillary Clinton's Economic View

    Find out where former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stands on the economy, jobs, trade and education.
RELATED TERMS
  1. Monetary Policy

    The actions of a central bank, currency board or other regulatory ...
  2. Section 1231 Property

    A tax term relating to depreciable business property that has ...
  3. Emergency Banking Act Of 1933

    A bill passed during the administration of former U.S. President ...
  4. Gross Domestic Product - GDP

    The monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced ...
  5. Marginable

    Definition of "marginable."
  6. European Sovereign Debt Crisis

    A period of time in which several European countries faced the ...
RELATED FAQS
  1. How is the Federal Reserve audited?

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Federal Reserve is extensively audited. Politicians on the left and right of a populist ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. Who decides when to print money in the US?

    The U.S. Treasury decides to print money in the United States as it owns and operates printing presses. However, the Federal ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. Why do some people claim the Federal Reserve is unconstitutional?

    The U.S. Constitution does not mention the need for a central bank, nor does it explicitly grant the government the power ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Where are the Social Security administration headquarters?

    The U.S. Social Security Administration, or SSA, is headquartered in Woodlawn, Maryland, a suburb just outside of Baltimore. ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. What is the Social Security administration responsible for?

    The main responsibility of the U.S. Social Security Administration, or SSA, is overseeing the country's Social Security program. ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Is the Social Security administration a government corporation?

    The U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) is a government agency, not a government corporation. President Franklin Roosevelt ... Read Full Answer >>

You May Also Like

Trading Center
×

You are using adblocking software

Want access to all of Investopedia? Add us to your “whitelist”
so you'll never miss a feature!