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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Fixing Global Imbalances

In this post from yesterday, Joseph Stiglitz explains how to solve global warming using WTO trade sanctions. Today he explains how to fix domestic and global imbalances without incurring a recession. He also recommends overhauling the global reserve system to cure the underlying structural problems that allow these imbalances to occur:

How to Fix the Global Economy, by Joseph Stiglitz, Commentary, Ny Times: The International Monetary Fund meeting in Singapore last month came at a time of increasing worry about the sustainability of global financial imbalances: For how long can the global economy endure America’s enormous trade deficits — the United States borrows close to $3 billion a day — or China’s growing trade surplus of almost $500 million a day?

These imbalances simply can’t go on forever. The good news is that there is a growing consensus to this effect. The bad news is that no country believes its policies are to blame. The United States points its finger at China’s undervalued currency, while the rest of the world singles out the huge American fiscal and trade deficits. ...

Treating the symptoms could actually make matters worse, at least in the short run. Take, for instance, the question of China’s undervalued exchange rate... Even if China strengthened its yuan relative to the dollar and eliminated its $114 billion a year trade surplus with the United States, and even if that immediately translated into a reduction in the American multilateral trade deficit, the United States would still be borrowing more than $2 billion a day: an improvement, but hardly a solution.

Of course, it is even more likely that there would be no significant change in America’s multilateral trade deficit at all. The United States would simply buy fewer textiles from China and more from Bangladesh, Cambodia and other developing countries.

Meanwhile, because a stronger yuan would make imported American food cheaper in China, the poorest Chinese — the farmers — would see their incomes fall... China might choose to counter the depressing effect of America’s huge agricultural subsidies by diverting money badly needed for industrial development into subsidies for its farmers. China’s growth might accordingly be slowed...

Nothing significant can be done about these global imbalances unless the United States attacks its own problems. No one seriously proposes that businesses save money instead of investing in expanding production simply to correct the problem of the trade deficit; and while there may be sermons aplenty about why Americans should save more — certainly more than the negative amount households saved last year — no one in either political party has devised a fail-proof way of ensuring that they do so. The Bush tax cuts didn’t do it. Expanded incentives for saving didn’t do it.

Indeed, most calculations show that these actually reduce national savings, since the cost to the government in lost revenue is greater than the increased household savings. The common wisdom is that there is but one alternative: reducing the government’s deficit.

Imagine that the Bush administration suddenly got religion (at least, the religion of fiscal responsibility) and cut expenditures. Assume that raising taxes is unlikely for an administration that has been arguing for further tax cuts. The expenditure cuts by themselves would lead to a weakening of the American and global economy. The Federal Reserve might try to offset this by lowering interest rates, and this might protect the American economy — by encouraging debt-ridden American households to try to take even more money out of their home-equity loans to pay for spending. But that would make America’s future even more precarious.

There is one way out of this seeming impasse: expenditure cuts combined with an increase in taxes on upper-income Americans and a reduction in taxes on lower-income Americans. The expenditure cuts would, of course, by themselves reduce spending, but because poor individuals consume a larger fraction of their income than the rich, the “switch” in taxes would, by itself, increase spending. If appropriately designed, such a combination could simultaneously sustain the American economy and reduce the deficit. ...

Underlying the current imbalances are fundamental structural problems with the global reserve system. John Maynard Keynes called attention to these problems three-quarters of a century ago. His ideas on how to reform the global monetary system, including creating a new reserve system based on a new international currency, can, with a little work, be adapted to today’s economy. Until we attack the structural problems, the world is likely to continue to be plagued by imbalances that threaten the financial stability and economic well-being of us all.

Tax policy won't be used to redistribute money from the rich to the poor anytime soon, even as part of an expenditure reduction package. It also appears it would take very large income transfers to offset government spending reductions since the impact of any dollar that is transferred is only the difference in the marginal propensities to consume. As for the connection between the budget and trade deficits which is assumed but not explained, see Menzie Chinn who estimates that a 10% reduction in the budget deficit would reduce the current account deficit by 4%.

    Posted by on Tuesday, October 3, 2006 at 12:24 AM in Budget Deficit, Economics, Income Distribution, International Trade, Policy, Politics, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (6)

          

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    » I think I'm doing the math wrong from Asymmetrical Information

    Joseph Stiglitz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times urging America to fix the current account deficit by (and I know that this will surprise you) raising taxes on the wealthy while cutting them for lower-income households. This will be hard to do, bec... [Read More]

    Tracked on Thursday, October 05, 2006 at 10:48 AM


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