Public Debt: Meaning, Classification and Method of Redemption!
Meaning of Public Debt:
Modern governments need to borrow from different sources when current revenue falls short of public expenditures. Thus, public debt refers to loans incurred by the government to finance its activities when other sources of public income fail to meet the requirements. In this wider sense, the proceeds of such public borrowing constitute public income.
However, since debt has to be repaid along with interest from whom it is borrowed, it does not constitute income. Rather, it constitutes public expenditure. Public debt is incurred when the government floats loans and borrows either internally or externally from banks, individuals or countries or international loan-giving institutions.
What is true about public borrowing is that, like taxes, public borrowing is not a compulsory source of public income. The word ‘compulsion’ is not applied to public borrowing except in certain exceptional cases of borrowing.
Classification of Public Debt:
The structure of public debt is not uniform in any country on account of factors such as categories of markets in which loans are floated, the conditions for repayment, the rate of interest offered on bonds, purposes of borrowing, etc.
In view of these differences in criteria, public debt is classified into various categories:
i. Internal and external debt
ii. Short term and long term loans
iii. Funded and unfunded debt
iv. Voluntary and compulsory loans
v. Redeemable and irredeemable debt
vi. Productive or reproductive and unproductive debt/deadweight debt
i. Internal and External Debt:
Sums owed to the citizens and institutions are called internal debt and sums owed to foreigners comprise the external debt. Internal debt refers to the government loans floated in the capital markets within the country. Such debt is subscribed by individuals and institutions of the country.
On the other hand, if a public loan is floated in the foreign capital markets, i.e., outside the country, by the government from foreign nationals, foreign governments, international financial institutions, it is called external debt.
ii. Short term and Long Term Loans:
Loans are classified according to the duration of loans taken. Most government debt is held in short term interest-bearing securities, such as Treasury Bills or Ways and Means Advances (WMA). Maturity period of Treasury bill is usually 90 days.
Government borrows money for such period from the central bank of the country to cover temporary deficits in the budget. Only for long term loans, government comes to the public. For development purposes, long period loans are raised by the government usually for a period exceeding five years or more.
iii. Funded and Unfunded or Floating Debt:
Funded debt is the loan repayable after a long period of time, usually more than a year. Thus, funded debt is long term debt. Further, since for the repayment of such debt government maintains a separate fund, the debt is called funded debt. Floating or unfunded loans are those which are repayable within a short period, usually less than a year.
It is unfunded because no separate fund is maintained by the government for the debt repayment. Since repayment of unfunded debt is made out of public revenue, it is referred to as a floating debt. Thus, unfunded debt is a short term debt.
iv. Voluntary and Compulsory Loans:
A democratic government raises loans for the nationals on a voluntary basis. Thus, loans given to the government by the people on their own will and ability are called voluntary loans. Normally, public debt, by nature, is voluntary. But during emergencies (e.g., war, natural calamities, etc.,) government may force the nationals to lend it. Such loans are called forced or compulsory loans.
v. Redeemable and Irredeemable Debt:
Redeemable public debt refers to that debt which the government promises to pay off at some future date. After the maturity period, the government pays the amount to the lenders. Thus, redeemable loans are called terminable loans.
In the case of irredeemable debt, government does not make any promise about the payment of the principal amount, although interest is paid regularly to the lenders. For the most obvious reasons, redeemable public debt is preferred. If irredeemable loans are taken by the government, the society will have to face the consequence of burden of perpetual debt.
vi. Productive (or Reproductive) and Unproductive (or Deadweight) Debt:
On the criteria of purposes of loans, public debt may be classified as productive or reproductive and unproductive or deadweight debt. Public debt is productive when it is used in income-earning enterprises. Or productive debt refers to that loan which is raised by the government for increasing the productive power of the economy.
A productive debt creates sufficient assets by which it is eventually repaid. If loans taken by the government are spent on the building of railways, development of mines and industries, irrigation works, education, etc., income of the government will increase ultimately.
Productive loans thus add to the total productive capacity of the country.
In the words of Findlay Shirras: “Productive or reproductive loans which are fully covered by assets of equal or greater value, the source of the interest is the income from the ownership of these as railways and irrigation works.”
Public debt is unproductive when it is spent on purposes which do not yield any income to the government, e.g., refugee rehabilitation or famine relief work. Loans for financing war may be regarded as unproductive loans. Instead of creating any productive assets in the economy, unproductive loans do not add to the productive capacity of the economy. That is why unproductive debts are called deadweight debts.
Methods of Redemption of Public Debt:
Redemption of debt refers to the repayment of a public loan. Although public debt should be paid, debt redemption is desirable too. In order to save the government from bankruptcy and to raise the confidence of lenders, the government has to redeem its debts from time to time.
Sometimes, the government may resort to an extreme step, such as repudiation of debt. This extreme step is, of course, violation of the contract. Use of repudiation of debt by the government is economically unsound.
Here, instead of concentrating on the repudiation of debt, we discuss below other important methods for the retirement or redemption of public debt:
Refunding of debt implies issue of new bonds and securities for raising new loans in order to pay off the matured loans (i.e., old debts).
When the government uses this method of refunding, there is no liquidation of the money burden of public debt. Instead, the debt servicing (i.e., repayment of the interest along with the principal) burden gets accumulated on account of postponement of the debt- repayment to save future debt.
By debt conversion we mean reduction of interest burden by converting old but high interest-bearing loans into new but low interest-bearing loans. This method tends to reduce the burden of interest on the taxpayers. As the government is enabled to reduce the burden of debt which falls, it is not required to raise huge revenue through taxes to service the debt.
Instead, the government can cut down the tax liability and provide relief to the taxpayers in the event of a reduction in the rate of interest payable on public debt. It is assumed that since most taxpayers are poor people while lenders are rich people, such conversion of public debt results in a less unequal distribution of income.
iii. Sinking Fund:
One of the best methods of redemption of public debt is sinking fund. It is the fund into which certain portion of revenue is put every year in such a way that it would be sufficient to pay off the debt from the fund at the time of maturity. In general, there are, in fact, two ways of crediting a portion of revenue to this fund.
The usual procedure is to deposit a certain (fixed) percentage of its annual income to the fund. Another procedure is to raise a new loan and credit the proceeds to the sinking fund. However, there are some reservations against the second method.
Dalton has opined that it is in the Tightness of things to accumulate sinking fund out of the current revenue of the government, not out of new loans. Although convenient, it is one of the slowest methods of redemption of debt. That is why capital levy as a form of debt repudiation is often recommended by economists.
iv. Capital Levy:
In times of war or emergencies, most governments follow the practice of raising money necessary for the redemption of the public debt by imposing a special tax on capital.
A capital levy is just like a wealth tax in as much as it is imposed on capital assets. This method has certain decisive advantages. Firstly, it enables a government to repay its (emergency) debt by collecting additional tax revenues from the rich people (i.e., people who have huge properties).
This then reduces consumption spending of these people and the severity of inflation is weakened. Secondly, progressive levy on capital helps to reduce inequalities in income and wealth. But it has certain clear-cut disadvantages too. Firstly, it hampers capital formation. Secondly, during normal time this method is not suggested.
v. Terminal Annuity:
It is something similar to sinking fund. Under this method, the government pays off its debt on the basis of terminal annuity. By using this method, the government pays off the debt in equal annual instalments.
This method enables government to reduce the burden of debt annually and at the time of maturity it is fully paid off. It is the method of redeeming debts in instalments since the government is not required to make one huge lump sum payment.
vi. Budget Surplus:
By making a surplus budget, the government can pay off its debt to the people. As a general rule, the government makes use of the budgetary surplus to buy back from the market its own bonds and securities. This method is of little use since modern governments resort to deficit budget. A surplus budget is usually not made.
vii. Additional Taxation:
Sometimes, the government imposes additional taxes on people to pay interest on public debt. By levying new taxes—both direct and indirect— the government can collect the necessary revenue so as to be able to pay off its old debt. Although an easier means of repudiation, this method has certain advantages since taxes have large distortionary effects.
viii. Compulsory Reduction in the Rate of Interest:
The government may pass an ordinance to reduce the rate of interest payable on its debt. This happens when the government suffers from financial crisis and when there is a huge deficit in its budget.
There are so many instances of such statutory reductions in the rate of interest. However, such practice is not followed under normal situations. Instead, the government is forced to adopt this method of debt repayment when situation so demands.