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Wed Apr 17, 2013, 07:40 PM

Paper used to justify harsh austerity programs riddled with problems including a spreadsheet error

The paper which was used to justify harsh austerity programs across Europe and in the U.S. is based on a spreadsheet error that excludes several countries, selective inclusion of data across time, and questionable weighting of data. So how come we didn't know this was a stinker until now? Because the authors wouldn't release their data. I wouldn't expect Paul Ryan to suddenly call for robust stimulus any time soon though.

In 2010, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff released a paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt." Their "main result is that...median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower." Countries with debt-to-GDP ratios above 90 percent have a slightly negative average growth rate, in fact.

This has been one of the most cited stats in the public debate during the Great Recession. Paul Ryan's Path to Prosperity budget states their study "found conclusive empirical evidence that [debt] exceeding 90 percent of the economy has a significant negative effect on economic growth." The Washington Post editorial board takes it as an economic consensus view, stating that "debt-to-GDP could keep rising and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth."

Is it conclusive? One response has been to argue that the causation is backwards, or that slower growth leads to higher debt-to-GDP ratios. Josh Bivens and John Irons made this case at the Economic Policy Institute. But this assumes that the data is correct. From the beginning there have been complaints that Reinhart and Rogoff weren't releasing the data for their results (e.g. Dean Baker). I knew of several people trying to replicate the results who were bumping into walls left and right - it couldn't be done.

In a new paper, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff," Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst successfully replicate the results. After trying to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results and failing, they reached out to Reinhart and Rogoff and they were willing to share their data spreadhseet. This allowed Herndon et al. to see how how Reinhart and Rogoff's data was constructed.

They find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don't get their controversial result.


After accounting for the errors, and bad methodology, the authors of the new paper found that in countries carrying debt-to-GDP ratios exceeding 90% there was, in fact, median 2.2% growth and not -0.1% as Reinhart-Rogoff reported.

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Reply Paper used to justify harsh austerity programs riddled with problems including a spreadsheet error (Original post)
unrepentant progress Apr 2013 OP
emsimon33 Apr 2013 #1
blkmusclmachine Apr 2013 #2
Jim Lane Apr 2013 #3

Response to unrepentant progress (Original post)

Wed Apr 17, 2013, 09:42 PM

2. Why look backward at reporting errors?


The Masters of the Universe have spoken. FORWARD!

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Response to unrepentant progress (Original post)

Thu Apr 18, 2013, 09:07 AM

3. There've been other threads about the UMass study but this explanation is especially good. (n/t)


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