Category Archive for: Fiscal Policy [Return to Main]

Monday, February 08, 2016

'Wealthy ‘Hand-to-Mouth’ Households: Key to Understanding the Impacts of Fiscal Stimulus'

 

Greg Kaplan and Giovanni Violante at Microeconomic Insights:

Wealthy ‘hand-to-mouth’ households: key to understanding the impacts of fiscal stimulus: Many families in Europe and North America have substantial assets in the form of housing and retirement accounts but little in the way of liquid wealth or credit facilities to offset short-term income falls. This research shows that these wealthy ‘hand-to-mouth’ households respond strongly to receiving temporary government transfers such as tax rebates, boosting the economy through their increased consumption. ...
Our research also draws attention to the fact that the aggregate macroeconomic conditions surrounding policy interventions will affect the fraction of the transfer consumed by households in non-trivial ways.
In a mild recession, where earnings drops are small and short-lived, it is not worthwhile for the wealthy hand-to-mouth households to pay the transaction costs of accessing some of their illiquid assets (or to use expensive credit) to smooth their consumption. As a result, liquidity constraints get amplified and their consumption response to the receipt of a fiscal stimulus payment is strong.
Counter-intuitively, the same stimulus policy may have stronger effects in a mild downturn than in a severe recession
Conversely, at the outset of a severe recession that induces a large and long-lasting fall in income, many wealthy hand-to-mouth households will choose to borrow or tap into their illiquid account to create a buffer of liquid assets that can be used to counteract the income loss. Consequently, fewer households are hand-to-mouth when they receive a government windfall. Thus, somewhat counter-intuitively, the effect of the stimulus on consumption can be lower than when the same policy is implemented in a mild downturn.
Acknowledging the existence of wealthy hand-to-mouth households also has implications for economic policy beyond fiscal stimulus. In further work (Kaplan et al, 2015), we show the importance of these households for the efficacy of both conventional monetary policy (changes in nominal interest rates) and unconventional monetary policy (forward guidance about future changes in nominal interest rates).

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

'How Successful Was the New Deal?'

From the NBER:

How Successful Was the New Deal? The Microeconomic Impact of New Deal Spending and Lending Policies in the 1930s, by Price V. Fishback, NBER Working Paper No. 21925 Issued in January 2016: Abstract The New Deal during the 1930s was arguably the largest peace-time expansion in federal government activity in American history. Until recently there had been very little quantitative testing of the microeconomic impact of the wide variety of New Deal programs. Over the past decade scholars have developed new panel databases for counties, cities, and states and then used panel data methods on them to examine the examine the impact of New Deal spending and lending policies for the major New Deal programs. In most cases the identification of the effect comes from changes across time within the same geographic location after controlling for national shocks to the economy. Many of the studies also use instrumental variable methods to control for endogeneity. The studies find that public works and relief spending had state income multipliers of around one, increased consumption activity, attracted internal migration, reduced crime rates, and lowered several types of mortality. The farm programs typically aided large farm owners but eliminated opportunities for share croppers, tenants, and farm workers. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s purchases and refinancing of troubled mortgages staved off drops in housing prices and home ownership rates at relatively low ex post cost to taxpayers. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation’s loans to banks and railroads appear to have had little positive impact, although the banks were aided when the RFC took ownership stakes.

(I couldn't find an open link.)

Monday, January 11, 2016

'Overly Tight Macroeconomic Policy'

I missed this from Narayana Kocherlakota a little over a week ago:

Overly Tight Macroeconomic Policy: The level of public debt is high by historical standards in many countries.  Central banks have set their nominal interest rate targets to extraordinarily low - sometimes negative - levels.  Despite these historical comparisons, though, macroeconomic outcomes tell a clear story: Macroeconomic policy remains much too tight in the US and around the world.  
In terms of monetary policy, inflation remains low, and is expected to remain low for years.  Indeed, financial market participants are betting that most major central banks will fall short of their inflation targets over the next decade or two.  Nonetheless, those same central banks (including the Federal Reserve) continue to communicate a strong desire to "normalize" - that is, tighten - monetary policy over the medium term.   
In terms of fiscal policy, many governments are able to borrow long-term at unusually low real interest rates.  They could invest those funds in needed physical and human infrastructure. Or they could return the funds to their citizens through tax cuts - tax cuts that could be tailored to incentivize physical investment or R&D.   But the relevant governments instead continue to emphasize the need to further restrict the level of public debt.  
Economic policymakers can do better.   The key is to focus a lot more on the question of how to use available policy tools to achieve desirable macroeconomic outcomes, and a lot less on historical empirical regularities.   Just because debt is high by historical standards doesn't mean that governments cannot make their citizens better off by issuing more debt   Just because nominal interest rates are low by historical standards doesn't mean that central banks can't achieve their objectives more rapidly by lowering them still further.  
We are only beginning to see the impact of tight policy choices on our economies.  We all know what has been happening in Spanish and Greek labor markets.  But even in the US - which supposedly has a near-normal labor market - the fraction of men aged 25-34 who do not have a job is over 50%(!) higher than it was in 2007.   Given these kinds of macroeconomic outcomes, it should not be surprising that we see increasing signs of social fracturing and disengagement in many developed countries.
I've said that economic policymakers can do better.  Indeed, I increasingly believe that they must do better. 

See here for more of his thoughts on macroeconomic policy.

Monday, January 04, 2016

'Falling Interest Rates and Government Investment'

I guess we have to keep making this point, hoping against hope that Congress will hear it. This is from Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

Falling Interest Rates and Government Investment: Switzerland is an amazing place, not least the skiing, the chocolate, and the punctual trains. The latter is part of the country’s exquisitely maintained infrastructure: there are no potholes, and no deferred maintenance of train tracks, tunnels, airports, or public buildings. Few countries go so far, but many can take a lesson: it pays to maintain infrastructure at least so that it doesn’t fail.
We bring this up now because financial markets are telling us that it’s a very good time to build and repair infrastructure: real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates have fallen so low that it has become exceptionally cheap to finance the improvement and repair of neglected roads, bridges, transport hubs, and public utilities. Yet, in the United States, we are doing less public investment than ever: net government investment has fallen to what is probably a record low. ...

Net Government Investment as a percentage of Net Domestic Product (annual data), 1959-2014

Static1.squarespace.com

Fixing the problem would be straightforward, and cheap in terms of finance. ...

To be clear, this argument need not be seen as one for a larger government, but for an efficient one that provides the public goods necessary for sustained economic growth at the lowest cost. For a country to remain prosperous, it needs an infrastructure that is constantly being renewed and improved. The alternative of postponing maintenance probably leads to higher costs—both from the direct impact on the economy from the deterioration of physical capital and from the need to finance future (larger) repair projects at potentially higher interest rates. Put differently, when fiscal policymakers choose to tighten the nation’s belt, they should not do so at the expense of future national income. ...

There is no need to be as obsessive as the Swiss; their outlays for public goods are surely greater than most Americans would wish to pay. But given today’s low hurdle rate of return, it is difficult to see how spending an extra 1% of NDP each year now to maintain and improve roads, bridges, airports, and buildings would be economically unsound. Even if the additional outlays are not self-financing, the social return is likely to be far greater than the cost. As monetary economists, we include as a valuable social benefit the reduced probability of hitting the zero lower bound in a world with a 2% inflation target.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Summers: My Views and the Fed’s Views on Secular Stagnation

Larry Summers:

My views and the Fed’s views on secular stagnation: It has been two years since I resurrected Alvin Hansen’s secular stagnation idea and suggested its relevance to current conditions in the industrial world. Unfortunately experience since that time has tended to confirm the secular stagnation hypothesis. Secular stagnation is a possibility. It is not an inevitability and it can be avoided with strong policy. Unfortunately, the Fed and other policy setters remain committed to traditional paradigms and so are acting in ways that make secular stagnation more likely. ... Indeed I would judge that there is at least a two-thirds chance that we will experience zero or negative rates again in the next five years. ...

I believe its decision to raise rates last week reflected four consequential misjudgments.
First, the Fed assigns a much greater chance that we will reach 2 percent core inflation than is suggested by most available data. ...
Second, the Fed seems to mistakenly regard 2 percent inflation as a ceiling not a target. ...
Third... It is suggested that by raising rates the Fed gives itself room to lower them. ... I would say the argument that the Fed should raise rates so as to have room to lower them is in the category with the argument that I should starve myself in order to have the pleasure of relieving my hunger pangs.
Fourth, the Fed is likely underestimating secular stagnation. It is ... overestimating the neutral rate. ...
Why is the Fed making these mistakes if indeed they are mistakes? It is not because its leaders are not thoughtful or open minded or concerned with growth and employment. Rather I suspect it is because of an excessive commitment to existing models and modes of thought. Usually it takes disaster to shatter orthodoxy. We can all hope that either my worries prove misplaced or the Fed shows itself to be less in the thrall of orthodoxy than it has been of late.

The Fed's job would have been, and will be a lot easier if fiscal policy makers would help. I disagree with Charles Plosser's view on monetary policy, but I have some sympathy for the view that many people have come to expect too much from monetary policy:

... On the monetary policy side central banks have clearly pushed the envelope in an effort to stabilize and then promote real economic growth.  The pressure to do so has come from inside and outside the central banks.  These actions have raised expectations of what the central bank can do.  For the last three or four decades, it has been widely accepted among academics and central bankers that monetary policy is primarily responsible for anchoring inflation and inflation expectations at some low level.  In the United States, where the Fed operates under the so-called dual mandate to promote both price stability and maximum employment, monetary policy has also attempted to stabilize economic growth and employment.  Yet it has also been widely accepted that monetary policy’s impact on real variables was limited and temporary, thus in the long-run changes in money were neutral for real variables.

The behavior of central banks during the crisis and subsequent recession has turned much of this conventional wisdom on its head.  It is not clear that this is wise or prudent.  Many have come to fear that without substantial support from monetary policy our economies will slump into stagnation. This would seem to fly in the face of nearly two centuries of economic thinking. ...

If secular stagnation is real, the Fed cannot overcome it by itself. Fiscal policy will have to be part of the solution. (I do think one statement above is wrong, and it gets at the heart of Summer's recent work reviving hysteresis and his statement above about commitment to orthodoxy. When Plosser says "monetary policy’s impact on real variables was limited and temporary, thus in the long-run changes in money were neutral for real variables," he is ignoring recent work by Summers, Blanchard, and Fatas showing that recessions can permanently  lower our productive capacity, and it is worse when the recession lasts longer. This means that monetary policy -- and fiscal policy too -- can have a permanent impact on the natural rate of output by helping the economy to recover faster. The faster the recovery, the less the natural rate is lowered. So I agree with Summers that monetary policy needs to take the possibility of secular stagnation into account, I just wish he'd put more emphasis on the essential role of fiscal policy -- something he has certainly done in the past, e.g., "I believe that it is appropriate that we go back to an earlier tradition that has largely passed out of macroeconomics of thinking about fiscal policy as having a major role in economic stabilization.")

Sunday, December 20, 2015

'The FTPL Version of the Neo-Fisherian Proposition'

I've never paid much attention to the fiscal theory of the price level:

The FTPL version of the Neo-Fisherian proposition: The Neo-Fisherian doctrine is the idea that a permanent increase in a flat nominal interest rate path will (eventually) raise the inflation rate. It is then suggested that current below target inflation is a consequence of fixing rates at their lower bound, and rates should be raised to increase inflation. David Andolfatto says there are two versions of this doctrine. The first he associates with the work of Stephanie Schmitt-Grohe and Martin Uribe, which I discussed here. He like me is not sold on this interpretation, for I think much the same reason. ... But he favours a different interpretation, based on the Fiscal Theory of the Price Level (FTPL).

Let me first briefly outline my own interpretation of the FTPL. This looks at the possibility of a fiscal regime where there is no attempt to stabilize debt. Government spending and taxes are set independently of the level or sustainability of government debt. The conventional and quite natural response to the possibility of that regime is to say it is unstable. But there is another possibility, which is that monetary policy stabilizes debt. Again a natural response would be to say that such a monetary policy regime is bound to be inconsistent with hitting an inflation target in the long run, but that is incorrect. ...

A constant nominal interest rate policy is normally thought to be indeterminate because the price level is not pinned down, even though the expected level of inflation is. In the FTPL, the price level is pinned down by the need for the government budget to balance at arbitrary and constant levels for taxes and spending. ...

I have a ... serious problem with this FTPL interpretation in the current environment. The belief that people would need to have for the FTPL to be relevant - that the government would not react to higher deficits by reducing government spending or raising taxes - does not seem to be credible, given that austerity is all about them doing exactly this despite being in a recession. As a result, I still find the Neo-Fisherian proposition, with either interpretation, somewhat unrealistic.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

'Central Bankers Do Not Have as Many Tools as They Think'

Larry Summers:

Central bankers do not have as many tools as they think: ... While recession risks may seem remote.., no postwar recession has been predicted a year ahead... History suggests that when recession comes it is necessary to cut rates more than 300 basis points..., the chances are very high that recession will come before there is room to cut rates enough to offset it. ...
Central bankers bravely assert that they can always use unconventional tools. But there may be less in the cupboard than they suppose. The efficacy of further quantitative easing ... is highly questionable. There are severe limits on how negative rates can become. A central bank forced back to the zero lower bound is not likely to have great credibility if it engages in forward guidance.
The Fed will in all likelihood raise rates this month. ... But the unresolved question that will hang over the economy is how policy can delay and ultimately contain the next recession. It demands urgent attention from fiscal as well as monetary policymakers.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The New Supply-Side Economics

New column:

The New Supply-Side Economics: Traditionally, macroeconomic policy has been divided into two distinct types. The first type, stabilization policy, attempts to keep output and employment as close to their full employment levels as possible. The idea behind these policies is to minimize, or even eliminate, short-term boom-bust cycles around the natural rates of output and employment caused by fluctuations in aggregate demand. 
The second type of policy, growth policy, works on the supply-side and attempts to keep the long-term natural rates of output and employment growing as fast as possible. Thus, if the long-term natural growth rate of output is, say, 2.5 percent, supply-side policy would try to increase this rate, while demand-side stabilization would try to keep us from deviating from it, whatever it might be. 
Importantly, these policies were believed to be independent. Monetary and fiscal policy used to stabilize the economy could change how fast the economy returns to the natural rate after a positive or negative shock, but the policy would have no impact at all on the natural rate itself. 
But what if this is wrong, as data from the Great Recession suggests? What if demand-side policies impact the natural rate after all? What does this mean for monetary and fiscal policy? It turns out to have important implications. ...

Friday, November 27, 2015

'What Is Holding Back the Economy?'

The rise of the crazies is not unrelated:

What Is Holding Back the Economy?: ...for many if not most people, the standard of living that can be achieved by working has been permanently reduced — by long bouts of unemployment and underemployment, by unstable and insecure employment, by long-term stagnation of wages and, perhaps most significantly, by the failure of Congress to use fiscal policy, consistently and aggressively, to counteract the devastation of the recession and its corrosive effects on the economy.
For some people in some places, steady work is simply no longer a way of life, if it ever was. In several states where jobless rates have fallen to pre-recession levels, including Illinois and Ohio, the drop is due mainly to shrinking labor forces, not increases in hiring. When unemployment rates go down because people have despaired of ever finding a job, the economy is not really improving. Rather, it is downshifting to a less prosperous level.
There are two related ways to counter that downshift. One is to make productivity-enhancing investments that create jobs today and lay the foundation for future growth. Such investments would include bolstered spending for education, transportation, environmental protection, basic science and other fields that are the purview of government. The other is to enact policies to ensure that pay and profits from enhanced productivity are broadly shared, rather than concentrated at the top of the income-and-wealth ladder. Such policies would include strict anti-trust enforcement, steeply progressive taxes, a higher minimum wage and support for labor unions. ...
But for now, there is mostly talk..., and much of the talk, especially from Republicans, is about how government should not step up to the nation’s economic challenges. The economy has recovered from the worst and proven resilient, but it is being held back by what government at all levels has failed to do.

Not the first to say this, but the problem is that Republicans have misrepresented the causes of the distress so many households feel, in particular scapegoating those who have it even worse as somehow responsible for their problems (and the decline of America more generally). And then they sell the solutions as benefiting the middle class (trickle down anyone?) when they are really directed at reducing taxes for those at the top, and reducing the government services that people rely upon to survive in this economy to support the tax cuts.

But there is something else I'd like to note. The problem is blamed on government at all levels, and fiscal policy. We hear, when Republicans are named at all, that it is "especially" Republicans as though the balance only tilts in one direction. No, it's not especially Republicans, or even mostly Republicans that are standing in the way of doing more to help those who are struggling to make ends meet. It is Republicans. It's not congressional gridlock based upon reasonable differences over policy that cannot be resolved through compromise, it's an active attempt by one party to block anything the other party tries to do, even if it might help people economically. So long as the political benefits of this behavior -- benefits based upon selling snake oil for the most part -- exceed the economic costs of inaction, Republicans will stand in the way (all the while trying to convince those who are hurt the most by their actions that they will actually be helped). It's time to stop blaming "government" as though that is what is dysfunctional. The dysfunction, as evidenced by the slate of, and preferences over Republican presidential candidates, is in the Republican party. Their actions since the onset of the Great Recession have, in my view, hurt people who should have been helped, slowed the recovery, and diverted our attention from the true problems we face making it impossible to solve them (not that Republicans would have gone along with the solutions anyway). If this election tears Republicans apart and strips them of this ability to stand in the way of helping the working class, a dream I know, I will not be shedding tears. Quite the opposite.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

'The Effects of Stimulus Spending on Surrounding Areas'

This is from the St. Louis Fed's On the Economy blog:

The Effects of Stimulus Spending on Surrounding Areas: Government spending on goods and services from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) reached around $350 billion.1 Some of this spending impacted not just the areas receiving the money, but surrounding areas as well, thanks to commuters. ...
Dupor and McCrory found substantial direct and spillover effects within regions interconnected by commuter flows. As noted in the article, stimulus spending in one county increased employment and wage payments in places two to three counties away, as long as the areas were sufficiently connected, as measured by commuting patterns. They found that:
  • One dollar of ARRA spending in a subregion increased wage payments by $0.64 in that subregion.
  • It increased wage payments in the neighboring subregion by $0.50.
In his article, Dupor wrote: “Thus, combining both the direct and spillover effects, there is a greater than one-for-one increase in the wage bill with respect to an increase in the stimulus spending.”
Dupor and McCrory also examined changes in the employment level to gauge economic activity. They found that, following the first two years after ARRA’s enactment, $1 million of stimulus in one part of a local labor market increased employment by 10.3 persons and increased employment in the rest of the local labor market by 8.5 persons.4
Dupor concluded in his article: “Besides providing evidence in favor of a government spending multiplier, our results should provide caution to other researchers, as well as to policymakers. Failing to take into account positive spillovers could lead policymakers to underestimate the total social benefit of government fiscal intervention.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Trickle Down, Starve the Beast, Supply-Side, and Sound Money Fantasies

From the WSJ editorial page:

...On the other hand, Mr. Cruz’s pitch for “sound money” that helps the middle class stands out in the GOP field and deserves more elaboration. It’s also notable that nearly all of the GOP candidates identify the Federal Reserve’s post-crisis monetary policy as a source of rising inequality that has favored the wealthy. This is a populist note that has the added benefit of being true. ...

Rising inequality for four decades can be blamed on the Fed's response to the financial crisis? Seriously? On taxes:

Then there’s tax policy, in which all of the candidates offered up reform plans that would be an improvement over the status quo.

But it has to be the right kind of tax policy (tax cuts or credits for the wealthy:

Marco Rubio was challenged on his child tax credit, which he would increase to $2,500 from $1,000. ... Mr. Rubio’s diagnosis of the changing economy has particular appeal to anxious voters. It’s too bad his tax credit is such an expensive political pander.

But of course cutting taxes on the wealthy is not an expensive pander, it will generate growth!!! Tax revenue will rise and the deficit will fall!!! The benefits will trickle down to the middle class (unless that evil Fed gets in the way decades later)!!! None of which has actually happened according to the empirical evidence. Republicans seem to have a talent for telling economic stories about how their policies will benefit the middle class all the while disguising the true intent of the legislation. So long as it can be true in theory (the confidence fairy comes to mind), the actual evidence doesn't matter.

James Pethokoukis says it's time to end the supply-side charade:

A last hurrah for Republican tax slashers: The Republican party’s raison d’être is cutting taxes. ... Republicans should pray for a new purpose. Their standing with middle-class voters is little improved from 2012. ... Their “supply-side” orthodoxy would merit much of the blame. Big tax cuts, particularly for the wealthiest, do not work in an age of high inequality and heavy debt. ...
Many of the party’s 2016 candidates seem to disagree that change is needed. ... Almost all have released economic plans built around “pro-growth” tax cuts costing trillions. ... But there are good reasons to view the next election as a last hurrah for Republican-style supply-side policy.
First, voters do not much care about taxes. ... Second, America’s fiscal situation makes deep tax cuts implausible. ... Third, tax cuts look like an answer desperately searching for a problem. Today’s top US marginal tax rate is 39.6 per cent...
There are signs candidates are starting to wriggle out of the supply-side straitjacket. At this week’s Republican presidential debate in Wisconsin, Marco Rubio said a larger tax credit for families was just as important as tax cuts for business. ... While 1980s-style supply-side doctrine still rules the Republican roost, it may not beyond November 2016.

There are also signs that these proposals, while perhaps helping candidates draw votes, have little chance of success in Congress. Republicans may need a new cover story -- a new "economic" argument or the middle class that obscures the true intent of the policy -- but it's not clear there's anything as magical as trickle down, starve the beast, supply-side, sound money fantasies that have served them so well.

Update: From Kevin Drum:

...Well, the Tax Foundation is a right-leaning outfit, so you have to figure they're going to give Republican plans a fair shake. And their distributional analysis of Rubio, Bush, Trump, and Cruz shows that their tax plans are all pretty similar: tiny gains for middle-income workers and huge gains for the top 1 percent. I've used the static analysis, since it's the most tethered to reality, but even if you use the magic dynamic estimates you get roughly the same result: the rich make out a whole lot better than the middle class.
That said, you really have to give Ted Cruz credit. When it comes to giving huge handouts to the rich, he's the true Republican leader.

Blog_gop_tax_plans_middle_class

Friday, November 06, 2015

Paul Krugman: Austerity’s Grim Legacy

Austerity did not lead to prosperity:

Austerity’s Grim Legacy, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: When economic crisis struck in 2008, policy makers by and large did the right thing. The Federal Reserve and other central banks realized that supporting the financial system took priority over conventional notions of monetary prudence. The Obama administration and its counterparts realized that in a slumping economy budget deficits were helpful, not harmful. And the money-printing and borrowing worked: A repeat of the Great Depression, which seemed all too possible..., was avoided.
Then it all went wrong. ... In 2010, more or less suddenly, the policy elite on both sides of the Atlantic decided to stop worrying about unemployment and start worrying about budget deficits instead.
This ... was very much at odds with basic economics. Yet ominous talk about the dangers of deficits became something everyone said because everyone else was saying it, and dissenters were no longer considered respectable...
Yet there’s growing evidence that we critics actually underestimated just how destructive the turn to austerity would be. Specifically, it now looks as if austerity policies didn’t just impose short-term losses of jobs and output, but they also crippled long-run growth. ...
What this suggests is that ... austerity had truly catastrophic effects, going far beyond the jobs and income lost in the first few years. In fact, the long-run damage ... is easily big enough to make austerity a self-defeating policy even in purely fiscal terms: Governments that slashed spending ... hurt their economies, and hence their future tax receipts, so much that even their debt will end up higher...
And the bitter irony ... is that this catastrophic policy was undertaken in the name of long-run responsibility, that those who protested ... were dismissed as feckless.
There are a few obvious lessons from this debacle. “All the important people say so” is not, it turns out, a good way to decide on policy... Also, calling for sacrifice (by other people, of course) doesn’t mean you’re tough-minded.
But will these lessons sink in? Past economic troubles, like the stagflation of the 1970s, led to widespread reconsideration of economic orthodoxy. But one striking aspect of the past few years has been how few people are willing to admit having been wrong about anything. It seems all too possible that the Very Serious People who cheered on disastrous policies will learn nothing from the experience. And that is, in its own way, as scary as the economic outlook.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

'Public Investment: has George Started listening to Economists?'

[Running very late today, so three quick posts to get something up besides links -- I probably chose this one because my name was mentioned. See the sidebar for more new links.]

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Public investment: has George started listening to economists?: I have in the past wondered just how large the majority among academic economists would be for additional public investment right now. The economic case for investing when the cost of borrowing is so cheap (particularly when the government can issue 30 year fixed interest debt) is overwhelming. I had guessed the majority would be pretty large just by personal observation. Economists who are not known for their anti-austerity views, like Ken Rogoff, tend to support additional public investment.
Thanks to a piece by Mark Thoma I now have some evidence. His article is actually about ideological bias in economics, and is well worth reading on that account, but it uses results from the ChicagoBooth survey of leading US economists. I have used this survey’s results on the impact of fiscal policy before, but they have asked a similar question about public investment. It is
“Because the US has underspent on new projects, maintenance, or both, the federal government has an opportunity to increase average incomes by spending more on roads, railways, bridges and airports.”
Not one of the nearly 50 economists surveyed disagreed with this statement. What was interesting was that the economists were under no illusions that the political process in the US would be such that some bad projects would be undertaken as a result (see the follow-up question). Despite this, they still thought increasing investment would raise incomes.
The case for additional public investment is as strong in the UK (and Germany) as it is in the US. Yet since 2010 it appeared the government thought otherwise. ...
However since the election George Osborne seems to have had a change of heart. ...

Saturday, October 24, 2015

'Are Canadian Progressives Showing Americans the Way?'

Miles Corak:

Are Canadian progressives showing Americans the way?: Reflecting on the recent outcome of the Canadian election, in which the Liberal Party of Canada cast itself as a progressive left of center party and reversed its fortunes in a major way to win a strong majority government, Larry Summers wrote in the Washington Post that “More infrastructure investment is not just good economics. It is good politics. Let us hope that American presidential candidates get the word!” ...
Paul Krugman echoes the same sentiment in a New York Times column entitled, somewhat inappropriately, “Keynes Comes to Canada.” ...
There is something ... that both countries share, and something they don’t, that sets an important backdrop.
Both countries have a significant need for important public sector investments in physical, and I would also say social, infrastructure. The populace sees this need as much in Canada as in the United States.
In Montreal, concrete slabs have fallen off of expressway overpasses, and killed unfortunate commuters. In Toronto, the gridlock associated with the commute to work is more than just a daily aggravation; it is a significant block to economic growth. In Vancouver, expansions in public transit are in need of significant funding. And the majors and city councils in countless municipalities battle with the need to update sewers and roads.
Both countries have this need, but in the US it is a harder sell. In a poll that I conducted with EKOS and The Pew Charitable Trusts, we found that the most significant difference in values on the two sides of the borders has less to do with philosophical issues associated with how to define a good life, but rather the role of government. Americans are much more likely to see government as hindering rather than helping them to achieve their personal goals.
My own view is that this comes down to a different view on the efficiency of government by a significant fraction of the population in the two countries. Canadians are much more likely to see government as a tool or a means to an end, Americans to see it as too inefficient and incapable of helping them accomplish their goals. A significant fraction of Canadians continue to have—in spite being told otherwise for a decade by their out-going conservative Prime Minister—a certain trust in the capacity for collective action through the public sector. Americans have seen too many failures to feel otherwise.
So in fundamental ways, Canadians may be more receptive to the message that Mr. Summers and Mr. Krugman would like to send Americans. ...

[In the full post, which is much longer, he discusses other important differences as well.]

Friday, October 23, 2015

'A Bridge Too Far?'

Roger Farmer:

A Bridge Too Far?: There is much current angst on the difficult problem of how to escape a liquidity trap. Paul Krugman points out that in Japan, the ratio of debt to GDP is growing, leaving little room for a further tame fiscal expansion. He favors something more aggressive.
Tony Yates argues instead for a helicopter drop. Print money and give it to Japanese citizens. The benefit of that approach is that it does not leave the government with an increase in interest bearing debt. Simon Wren Lewis looks more closely at the technical aspects of this idea.
What are the differences between aggressive fiscal expansion financed by debt creation; and printing money and giving it to citizens? There are two.
First, an aggressive fiscal expansion, as envisaged by Keynesians, would be spent on infrastructure. A money financed transfer would be spent by citizens.
Second, an aggressive fiscal expansion, as envisaged by Keynesians, would be financed by issuing long term bonds. A money financed transfer would be financed by printing money.
While infrastructure expenditure is sorely needed, at least in the U.S., I see no reason to give up on sound cost benefit analysis to decide which projects are worth pursuing and which are not. That’s why I favor giving checks to citizens over building a bridge to nowhere. ...
I prefer private sector investment over government sector investment. But there are also good arguments for more public infrastructure projects. Build a bridge if it is needed; but make sure that it goes somewhere first. More importantly; finance the project by printing money: not by issuing thirty year bonds.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Paul Krugman: Something Not Rotten in Denmark

The important lessons we can learn from Denmark:

Something Not Rotten in Denmark, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: No doubt surprising many of the people watching the Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders cited Denmark as a role model for how to help working people. Hillary Clinton demurred slightly, declaring that “we are not Denmark,” but agreed that Denmark is an inspiring example. ... But how great are the Danes, really? ...
Denmark maintains a welfare state ... that is beyond the wildest dreams of American liberals. ... To pay for these programs, Denmark collects a lot of taxes..., almost half of national income, compared with 25 percent in the United States. Describe these policies to any American conservative, and he would predict ruin. Surely those generous benefits must destroy the incentive to work, while those high taxes drive job creators into hiding or exile.
Strange to say, however, Denmark ...is ... a prosperous nation that does quite well on job creation. ... It’s hard to imagine a better refutation of anti-tax, anti-government economic doctrine...
But ... is everything copacetic in Copenhagen? Actually, no..., its ... recovery from the global financial crisis has been slow and incomplete. ...
What explains this poor recent performance? The answer, mainly, is bad monetary and fiscal policy. Denmark hasn’t adopted the euro, but it manages its currency as if it had... And while the country has faced no market pressure to slash spending ... it has adopted fiscal austerity anyway.
The result is a sharp contrast with neighboring Sweden, which doesn’t shadow the euro (although it has made some mistakes on its own), hasn’t done much austerity, and has seen real G.D.P. per capita rise while Denmark’s falls.
But Denmark’s monetary and fiscal errors don’t say anything about the sustainability of a strong welfare state. In fact, people who denounce things like universal health coverage and subsidized child care tend also to be people who demand higher interest rates and spending cuts in a depressed economy. (Remember all the talk about “debasing” the dollar?) That is, U.S. conservatives actually approve of some Danish policies — but only the ones that have proved to be badly misguided.
So yes, we can learn a lot from Denmark, both its successes and its failures. And let me say that it was both a pleasure and a relief to hear people who might become president talk seriously about how we can learn from the experience of other countries, as opposed to just chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Financial Crisis: Lessons for the Next One

Alan S. Blinder and Mark Zandi:

The Financial Crisis: Lessons for the Next One: The massive and multifaceted policy responses to the financial crisis and Great Recession -- ranging from traditional fiscal stimulus to tools that policymakers invented on the fly -- dramatically reduced the severity and length of the meltdown that began in 2008; its effects on jobs, unemployment, and budget deficits; and its lasting impact on today's economy.

Without the policy responses of late 2008 and early 2009, we estimate that:

  • The peak-to-trough decline in real gross domestic product (GDP), which was barely over 4%, would have been close to a stunning 14%;
  • The economy would have contracted for more than three years, more than twice as long as it did;
  • More than 17 million jobs would have been lost, about twice the actual number.
  • Unemployment would have peaked at just under 16%, rather than the actual 10%;
  • The budget deficit would have grown to more than 20 percent of GDP, about double its actual peak of 10 percent, topping off at $2.8 trillion in fiscal 2011.
  • Today's economy might be far weaker than it is -- with real GDP in the second quarter of 2015 about $800 billion lower than its actual level, 3.6 million fewer jobs, and unemployment at a still-dizzying 7.6%.

We estimate that, due to the fiscal and financial responses of policymakers (the latter of which includes the Federal Reserve), real GDP was 16.3% higher in 2011 than it would have been. Unemployment was almost seven percentage points lower that year than it would have been, with about 10 million more jobs.

To be sure, while some aspects of the policy responses worked splendidly, others fell far short of hopes. Many policy responses were controversial at the time and remain so in retrospect. Indeed, certain financial responses were deeply unpopular, like the bank bailouts in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Nevertheless, these unpopular responses had a larger combined impact on growth and jobs than the fiscal interventions. All told, the policy responses -- the 2009 Recovery Act, financial interventions, Federal Reserve initiatives, auto rescue, and more -- were a resounding success.

Our findings have important implications for how policymakers should respond to the next financial crisis, which will inevitably occur at some point because crises are an inherent part of our financial system. As explained in greater detail in Section 5:

  • It is essential that policymakers employ "macroprudential tools" (oversight of financial markets) before the next financial crisis to avoid or minimize asset bubbles and the increased leverage that are the fodder of financial catastrophes.
  • When financial panics do come, regulators should be as consistent as possible in their responses to troubled financial institutions, ensuring that creditors know where their investments stand and thus don't run to dump them when good times give way to bad.
  • Policymakers should not respond to every financial event, but they should respond aggressively to potential crises -- and the greater the uncertainty, the more policymakers should err on the side of a bigger response.
  • Policymakers should recognize that the first step in fighting a crisis is to stabilize the financial system because without credit, the real economy will suffocate regardless of almost any other policy response.
  • To minimize moral hazard, bailouts of companies should be avoided. If they are unavoidable, shareholders should take whatever losses the market doles out and creditors should be heavily penalized. Furthermore, taxpayers should ultimately be made financially whole and better communication with the public should be considered an integral part of any bailout operation.
  • Because fiscal and monetary policy interactions are large, policymakers should use a "two-handed" approach (monetary and fiscal) to fight recessions -- and, if possible, they should select specific monetary and fiscal tools that reinforce each other.
  • Because conventional monetary policy -- e.g., lowering the overnight interest rate -- may be insufficient to forestall or cure a severe recession, policymakers should be open to supplementing conventional monetary policy with unconventional monetary policies, such as the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing (QE) program of large-scale financial asset purchases, especially once short-term nominal interest rates approach zero.
  • Discretionary fiscal policy, which has been a standard way to fight recessions since the Great Depression, remains an effective way to do so, and the size of the stimulus should be proportionate to the magnitude of the expected decline in economic activity.
  • Policymakers should not move fiscal policy from stimulus to austerity until the financial system is clearly stable and the economy is enjoying self-sustaining growth.

The worldwide financial crisis and global recession of 2007-2009 were the worst since the 1930s. With luck, we will not see their likes again for many decades. But we will see a variety of financial crises and recessions, and we should be better prepared for them than we were in 2007. That's why we examined the policy responses to this most recent crisis closely, and why we wrote this paper.

We provide details of the methods we used to generate the findings summarized above....

Thursday, October 15, 2015

'GDP Growth is Not Exogenous'

Antonio Fatás:

GDP growth is not exogenous: Ken Rogoff in the Financial Times argues that the world economy is suffering from a debt hangover rather than deficient demand. The argument and the evidence are partly there: financial crises tend to be more persistent. However, there is still an open question whether this is the fundamental reason why growth has been so anemic and whether other potential reasons (deficient demand, secular stagnation,…) matter as much or even more.
In the article, Rogoff dismisses calls for policies to stimulate demand as the wrong actions to deal with debt, the ultimate cause of the crisis. ... But there is a perspective that is missing in that logic. The ratio of debt or government spending to GDP depends on GDP and GDP growth cannot be considered as exogenous. ...
In a recent paper Olivier Blanchard, Eugenio Cerutti and Larry Summers show that persistence and long-term effects on GDP is a feature of any crisis, regardless of the cause. Even crises that were initiated by tight monetary policy leave permanent effects on trend GDP. Their paper concludes that under this scenario, monetary and fiscal policy need to be more aggressive given the permanent costs of recessions
Using the same logic, in an ongoing project with Larry Summers we have explored the extent to which fiscal policy consolidations can be responsible for the persistence and permanent effects on GDP during the Great Recession. Our empirical evidence very much supports this hypothesis: countries that implemented the largest fiscal consolidating have seen a large permanent decrease in GDP. [And this is true taking into account the possibility of reverse causality (i.e. governments that believed that the trend was falling the most could have applied stronger contractionary policy).
While we recognize that there is always uncertainty..., the size of the effects that we find are large enough so that they cannot be easily ignored... In fact, using our estimates we calibrate the model of a recent paper by Larry Summers and Brad DeLong to show that fiscal contractions in Europe were very likely self-defeating. In other words, the resulting (permanent) fall in GDP led to a increase in debt to GDP ratios as opposed to a decline, which was the original objective of the fiscal consolidation.
The evidence from both of these papers strongly suggests that policy advice cannot ignore this possibility, that crises and monetary and fiscal actions can have permanent effects on GDP. Once we look at the world through this lens what might sound like obvious and solid policy advice can end up producing the opposite outcome of what was desired.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

'A Stimulus Junkie's Lament'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

One ‘stimulus junkie’ has already had a go at this FT piece by the chief economist of the German finance ministry ...
German officials need to be very careful before they claim that recent German macro performance justifies their anti-Keynesian views, because it might just prompt people to look at what has actually happened. Germany did undertake a stimulus package in 2009. But more importantly, in the years preceding that, it built up a huge competitive advantage by undercutting its Eurozone neighbors via low wage increases. This is little different in effect from beggar my neighbor devaluation. It is a demand stimulus, but (unlike fiscal stimulus) one that steals demand from other countries. This may or may not have been intended, but it should make German officials think twice before they laud their own performance to their Eurozone neighbors. If these neighbors start getting decent macro advice and some political courage, they might start replying that Germany’s current prosperity is a result of theft. ...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

'One Reason Why Monetary Policy is Preferred by New Keynesians'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

One reason why monetary policy is preferred by New Keynesians: ...Suppose, for example, individuals decide for some reason that they want to hold more money. They expect to sell their output, but plan to buy less. If everyone does this, aggregate demand will fall, and producers will not sell all their output. If goods cannot be stored, and if producers cannot consume their own good, this could lead to pure waste: some goods remain unsold and rot away. (If all producers immediately cut their prices, then a new equilibrium is possible where producers’ desire to hold more real money balances is achieved by a fall in prices. So we need to rule this possibility out by having some form of price rigidity.)
The government could prevent waste in two ways. It could persuade consumers to hold less money and buy more goods, which we can call monetary policy. Or it could buy up all the surplus production and produce more public goods, which we could call fiscal policy. Both solutions eliminate waste, but monetary policy is preferable to fiscal policy because the public/private good mix remains optimal.
Three comments on this reason for preferring monetary policy. First, if for some reason monetary policy cannot do this job, clearly using fiscal policy is better than doing nothing. It is better to produce something useful with goods rather than letting them rot. We could extend this further. If for some reason the impact of monetary policy was uncertain, then that could also be a reason to prefer fiscal policy, which in this example is sure to eliminate waste. Second, the cost of using fiscal rather than monetary policy obviously depends on the form of public spending. If the public good was repairing the streets the market was held in one year earlier than originally planned the 'distortion' involved is pretty small. Third, another means of achieving the optimal solution, besides monetary policy, is for the government to give everyone the extra money they desire.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Summers: Global Economy: The Case for Expansion

Larry Summers continues his call for fiscal expansion:

Global economy: The case for expansion: ...The problem of secular stagnation — the inability of the industrial world to grow at satisfactory rates even with very loose monetary policies — is growing worse in the wake of problems in most big emerging markets, starting with China. ... Industrialised economies that are barely running above stall speed can ill-afford a negative global shock. Policymakers badly underestimate the risks... If a recession were to occur, monetary policymakers lack the tools to respond. ...
This is no time for complacency. The idea that slow growth is only a temporary consequence of the 2008 financial crisis is absurd. ...
Long-term low interest rates radically alter how we should think about fiscal policy. Just as homeowners can afford larger mortgages when rates are low, government can also sustain higher deficits. ...
The case for more expansionary fiscal policy is especially strong when it is spent on investment or maintenance. ... While the problem before 2008 was too much lending, many more of today’s problems have to do with too little lending for productive investment.
Inevitably, there will be discussion of the need for structural reform... — there always is. ...
Traditional approaches of focusing on sound government finance, increased supply potential and the avoidance of inflation court disaster. ... It is an irony of today’s secular stagnation that what is conventionally regarded as imprudent offers the only prudent way forward.

[The full post is much, much longer.]

Thursday, October 01, 2015

'The Costs of Interest Rate Liftoff for Homeowner'

Two posts on housing. First, how will an increase in interest rates impact mortgage markets?:

The costs of interest rate liftoff for homeowners: Why central bankers should focus on inflation, by Carlos Garriga, Finn Kydland, and Roman Šustek: The Federal Reserve Bank and the Bank of England left their policy interest rates unchanged this month... But an interest rate liftoff in the near future remains on the table in both the US and the UK, provided the headwinds from China ease off and there is further evidence of improvements in the domestic economy. Inflation, however, still hovers in both economies stubbornly around zero percent. 
Interest rates set by central banks influence the economy through various transmission mechanisms. But one channel affects the typical household directly – the cost of servicing mortgage debt. ... Changes in the interest rate set by the central bank affect the size of mortgage payments, but differently for different types of loans. In addition, the real value of these payments depends on inflation. ...
Policy implications
To sum up, the effects of the liftoff on homeowners depend on three factors:
  • The prevalent mortgage type in the economy (fixed or adjustable rate mortgages);
  • The speed of the liftoff; and
  • What happens to inflation during the course of the liftoff.
If inflation stays constant at near zero then in the US, where fixed rate mortgage loans dominate, the liftoff will affect only new homeowners. In the UK, where adjustable rate mortgage loans dominate, the negative effects will in contrast be felt strongly by both new and existing homeowners.
However, if the liftoff is accompanied by sufficiently high inflation as in our examples, the negative effects will be weaker in both countries. In the US, the initial negative effect on new homeowners will be compensated by gradual positive effects on existing homeowners. And in the UK, provided the liftoff is sufficiently slow, neither existing nor new homeowners may face significantly higher real costs of servicing their mortgage debt. But if the liftoff is too fast, both types of homeowners in the UK will face higher real mortgage costs in the medium term, even if the liftoff is accompanied by positive inflation with no change in real rates.
Therefore, if the purpose of the liftoff is to ‘normalize’ nominal interest rates without derailing the recovery, central bankers in both the US and the UK should wait until the economies convincingly show signs of inflation taking off. Furthermore, the liftoff should be gradual and in line with inflation.

Second, allowing less creditworthy borrowers to refinance could stimulate the economy:

‘Home Affordable Refinancing Program’: Impact on borrowers, by Sumit Agarwal, Gene Amromin, Souphala Chomsisengphet, Tomasz Piskorski, Amit Seru, and Vincent Yao: Mortgage refinancing is one of the main ways households can benefit from a decline in the cost of credit. This column uses the US Government’s Home Affordable Refinancing Program (HARP) as a laboratory to examine the government’s ability to impact refinancing activity and spur household consumption. The results suggest that less creditworthy borrowers significantly increase their spending following refinancing. To the extent that such borrowers have the largest marginal propensity to consume, allowing them to refinance under the program could increase overall consumption and alleviate uneven economic outcomes across the country.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

'Central Banks Have Made the Rich Richer'

Paul Marshall, chairman of London-based hedge fund Marshall Wace, in the FT:

Central banks have made the rich richer: Labour’s new shadow chancellor has got at least one thing right. ... Quantitative easing ... has bailed out bonus-happy banks and made the rich richer. ...
It is no surprise that the left is angry about this, nor that they are looking for other versions of QE that do not so directly benefit bankers and the rich. Instead of increasing the money supply by buying sovereign bonds from banks, central banks could spread the love evenly by depositing extra money in every person’s bank account..., it might have been fairer.
Mr McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader, advocate a second approach: targeting QE at infrastructure projects. The central bank would buy bonds direct from the Treasury on the understanding that the funds would be used to improve housing and transport infrastructure. ...
QE had clear wealth effects, which could have been offset by fiscal measures. All political parties should acknowledge this. So should those of us who want free markets to retain their legitimacy.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Unemployment Insurance and Progressive Taxation as Automatic Stabilizers

Some preliminary results from a working paper by Alisdair Mckay and Ricardo Reis:

Optimal Automatic Stabilizers, by Alisdair McKay and Ricardo Reis: 1 Introduction How generous should the unemployment insurance system be? How progressive should the tax system be? These questions have been studied extensively and there are well-known trade-offs between social insurance and incentives. Typically these issues are explored in the context of a stationary economy. These policies, however, also serve as automatic stabilizers that alter the dynamics of the business cycle. The purpose of this paper is to ask how and when aggregate stabilization objectives call for, say, more generous unemployment benefits or a more progressive tax system than would be desirable in a stationary economy. ...
We consider two classic automatic stabilizers: unemployment benefits and progressive taxation. Both of these policies have roles in redistributing income and in providing social insurance. Redistribution affects aggregate demand in our model because households differ in their marginal propensities to consume. Social insurance affects aggregate demand through precautionary savings decisions because markets are incomplete. In addition to unemployment insurance and progressive taxation, we also consider a fiscal rule that makes government spending respond automatically to the state of the economy.
Our focus is on the manner in which the optimal fiscal structure of the economy is altered by aggregate stabilization concerns. Increasing the scope of the automatic stabilizers can lead to welfare gains if they raise equilibrium output when it would otherwise be inefficiently low and vice versa. Therefore, it is not stabilization per se that is the objective but rather eliminating inefficient fluctuations. An important aspect of the model specification is therefore the extent of inefficient business cycle fluctuations. Our model generates inefficient fluctuations because prices are sticky and monetary policy cannot fully eliminate the distortions. We show that in a reasonable calibration, more generous unemployment benefits and more progressive taxation are helpful in reducing these inefficiencies. Simply put, if unemployment is high when there is a negative output gap, a larger unemployment benefit will stimulate aggregate demand when it is inefficiently low thereby raising welfare. Similarly, if idiosyncratic risk is high when there is a negative output gap,1 providing social insurance through more progressive taxation will also increase welfare....

Monday, August 10, 2015

Job Training and Government Multipliers

Two new papers from the NBER:

What Works? A Meta Analysis of Recent Active Labor Market Program Evaluations, by David Card, Jochen Kluve, and Andrea Weber, NBER Working Paper No. 21431 Issued in July 2015: We present a meta-analysis of impact estimates from over 200 recent econometric evaluations of active labor market programs from around the world. We classify estimates by program type and participant group, and distinguish between three different post-program time horizons. Using meta-analytic models for the effect size of a given estimate (for studies that model the probability of employment) and for the sign and significance of the estimate (for all the studies in our sample) we conclude that: (1) average impacts are close to zero in the short run, but become more positive 2-3 years after completion of the program; (2) the time profile of impacts varies by type of program, with larger gains for programs that emphasize human capital accumulation; (3) there is systematic heterogeneity across participant groups, with larger impacts for females and participants who enter from long term unemployment; (4) active labor market programs are more likely to show positive impacts in a recession. [open link]

And:

Clearing Up the Fiscal Multiplier Morass: Prior and Posterior Analysis, by Eric M. Leeper, Nora Traum, and Todd B. Walker, NBER Working Paper No. 21433 Issued in July 2015: We use Bayesian prior and posterior analysis of a monetary DSGE model, extended to include fiscal details and two distinct monetary-fiscal policy regimes, to quantify government spending multipliers in U.S. data. The combination of model specification, observable data, and relatively diffuse priors for some parameters lands posterior estimates in regions of the parameter space that yield fresh perspectives on the transmission mechanisms that underlie government spending multipliers. Posterior mean estimates of short-run output multipliers are comparable across regimes—about 1.4 on impact—but much larger after 10 years under passive money/active fiscal than under active money/passive fiscal—means of 1.9 versus 0.7 in present value. [open link]

Friday, July 31, 2015

Pictures of Austerity

Brendan Mochoruk and Louise Sheiner of the Brookings Institution say that Fiscal Headwinds are Abating:

Tight fiscal policy by local, state, and federal governments held down economic growth for more than four years, but that restraint finally appears to be over...

This is a pretty good summary of the charts:

Fiscal policy is no longer a source of contraction for the economy, but neither is it a source of strength.

But in my view the statement "neither is it a source of strength" understates how poorly fiscal policy has been managed. The strong headwinds never should have been there to begin with, and we have yet to feel the wind at our backs:

Fiscalimpact1

Monthly-employment-change

State-spending

Monthly-federal-emplyment

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

'You Can’t Reform Your Way to Rapid Growth'

Dietz Vollrath:

You Can’t Reform Your Way to Rapid Growth: ...in response to the small back-and-forth that Noah Smith (also here) and John Cochrane had regarding Jeb! Bush’s suggestion/idea/hope to push the growth of GDP up to 4% per year. Cochrane asked “why not?”, and offered several proposals for structural reforms (e.g. reforming occupational licensing) that could contribute to growth. Smith was skeptical...
Oddly enough, the discussion of Jeb!’s 4% target is also a good entry point to talking about Greece, and the possibility that the various structural reforms insisted on by the Germans will manage to materially change their situation. But we’ll get to that.
First, what are the possibilities of generating 4% GDP growth in the U.S.? I’m presuming that we’re talking about whether we can boost per capita growth up to 4% per year for some relatively short time frame, because history suggests that sustained 4% growth in GDP is incredibly unlikely. From Jeb!’s perspective, I’m guessing either 4 or 8 years is the right window to look at, but let’s say we’re trying to achieve this for just 5 years. ...[discusses and illustrates the conclusions of a standard growth model]...
You can just scrape 4% growth if you continue to assume that structural reforms to the U.S. economy can add $3 trillion to potential GDP and that the convergence parameter is ... more than twice as big as any reliable empirical estimate. Or you could ... assume that structural reforms were capable of pushing potential GDP to $26 trillion, a 53% increase over potential GDP today. Both are huge stretches, and almost certainly wrong.
It is this same logic that is at play in Greece, by the way. ...
Massive structural reforms are not capable of generating immediate short-run jumps in growth rates in the U.S., Greece, or any other relatively developed economy. They play out over long periods of time, and the empirics we have suggest that by long periods we mean decades and decades of slightly above average growth. ...
Structural reforms don’t generate massive short-term changes in growth rates because they are fiddling with marginal decisions, making people marginally more likely to invest, or change jobs, or get an education, or start a company. By permanently changing those marginal decisions, structural reforms act like glaciers, slowly carving the economy into a new shape over long periods of time. ...
If you want to radically boost GDP growth now, then someone has to spend money now. Take infrastructure spending..., the beauty of infrastructure spending is that is doesn’t just push us closer to potential, it almost certainly raises potential GDP as well, and keeps the growth rate above average for longer. ...
The difference with infrastructure spending is that it does not nibble around the edges or play with marginal decisions. It dumps a bunch of new spending into the economy. And that is the only way to juice the growth rate appreciably in the short run. Structural reforms will raise GDP, and in the long run may raise GDP by far more than immediate infrastructure spending. But that increase in GDP will take decades, and the change in growth will be barely noticeable. You want demonstrably faster growth right now? Then be prepared to spend lots of money right now.
In the Greek situation, the implication is that without some kind of boost to spending now, they are unlikely to ever grow fast enough to ever get out of this hole they are in. ...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

'Needed: More Government, More Government Debt, Less Worry'

Brad DeLong (the full post is much, much longer):

Needed: More Government, More Government Debt, Less Worry: **Introduction**
Olivier Blanchard, when he parachuted me into this panel, asked me to “be provocative”.
So let me provoke:...
It makes sense to distinguish the medium from the short term only if the North Atlantic economies will relatively soon enter a régime in which the economy is not at the zero lower bound on safe nominal interest rates. The medium term is at a horizon at which monetary policy can adequately handle all of the demand-stabilization role. ...
As I see it, there are three major medium-run questions that then remain...:
* What is the proper size of the 21st-century public sector?
* What is the proper level of the 21st-century public debt for growth and prosperity?
* What are the systemic risks caused by government debt, and what adjustment to the proper level of 21st-century public debt is advisable because of systemic risk considerations?
To me at least, the answer to the first question–what is the proper size of the 21st-century public sector?–appears very clear.
The optimal size of the 21st-century public sector will be significantly larger than the optimal size of the 20th-century public sector. Changes in technology and social organization are moving us away from a “Smithian” economy, one in which the presumption is that the free market or the Pigovian-adjusted market does well, to one that requires more economic activity to be regulated by differently-tuned social and economic arrangements (see DeLong and Froomkin (2000)). One such is the government. Thus there should be more public sector and less private sector in the 21st-century than there was in the 20th.
Similarly, the answer to the second question appears clear, to me at least.
The proper level of the 21st century public debt should be significantly higher than typical debt levels we have seen in the 20th century ... *unless interest rates in the 21st century reverse the pattern we have seen in the 20th century, and mount to levels greater than economic growth rates*.
This consideration is strengthened by observing that the North Atlantic economies have now moved into a régime in which the opposite has taken place. Real interest rates on government debt are not higher but even lower relative to growth rates than they have been in the past century. Financial market participants now appear to expect this now ultra-low interest-rate régime to continue indefinitely (see Summers (2014)).
The answer to the third question–what are the systemic risks caused by government debt?–is much more murky. ...
The question ... is:... How much more likely does higher debt make it that interest rates will spike in the absence of fundamental reasons? How much would they spike? What would government policy be in response to such a spike? And what would be the effect on the economy?
The answer thus hinges on:
* the risk of a large sudden upward shift in the willingness to hold government debt, even absent substantial fundamental news.
* the ability of governments to deal with such a risk that threatens to push economies far enough up the Laffer curve to turn a sustainable into an unsustainable debt.
I believe the risk in such a panicked flight from an otherwise sustainable debt is small. I hold, along with Rinehart and Rogoff (2013), that the government’s legal tools to finance its debt via financial repression are very powerful, Thus I think this consideration has little weight. I believe that little adjustment to one’s view of the proper level of 21st-century public debt of *reserve currency-issuing sovereigns with exorbitant privilege* is called for because of systemic risk considerations.
But my belief here is fragile. And my comprehension of the issues is inadequate.
Let me expand on these three answers...

Thursday, July 09, 2015

'Fiscal Policy and the Long-Run Neutral Real Interest Rate'

Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, says more government debt would help the Fed:

Fiscal Policy and the Long-Run Neutral Real Interest Rate: Thanks for the introduction and the invitation to be here today.
In my remarks today, I will make three points about the U.S. economy.
First, there has been a significant decline in the long-run real interest rate, reflecting (in large part) a decline in what is sometimes called the long-run neutral real interest rate. (By the long-run neutral real interest rate, I mean the real interest rate that I expect to prevail when the economy is at maximum employment and inflation is at the central bank’s target.) Second, this decline in the long-run neutral real interest rate is likely to mean that monetary policymakers will be more constrained by the lower bound on the nominal interest rate in the future than they have been in the past. 
My third point concerns an important connection between monetary and fiscal policy. I consider a permanent increase in the market value of the public debt, financed by an increase in taxes or reduction in transfers. This policy change increases the supply of assets available to investors. I argue that, in a wide class of plausible economic models, such an increase in supply would push downward on debt prices, and so upward on the long-run neutral real interest rate. 
When I put these three points together, I reach my main conclusion. The decline in the long-run neutral real interest rate increases the likelihood that the economy will run into the lower bound on nominal interest rates. Accordingly, there is an enhanced risk that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will undershoot its maximum employment and 2 percent inflation objectives. Fiscal policymakers can mitigate this risk by choosing to maintain higher levels of public debt than markets currently anticipate.
I want to be clear at the outset that I am not saying that it is appropriate for fiscal policymakers to increase the long-run level of public debt. I am simply pointing to one benefit associated with such an increase: It allows the central bank to be more effective in mitigating the impact of adverse shocks to aggregate demand. I will point to other costs (and benefits) associated with increasing the level of public debt. Sorting through them is outside the scope of my remarks today, and really outside of my purview as a monetary policymaker. ...

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

'Policy Lessons From The Eurodebacle'

Paul Krugman:

Policy Lessons From The Eurodebacle: ...there’s a broader lesson from Greece that is relevant to all of us — and it’s not the usual one about mending our free-spending ways lest we become Greece, Greece I tell you. What we learn, instead, is that fiscal austerity plus hard money is a deeply toxic mix. The fiscal austerity depresses the economy, and pushes it toward deflation; if it’s accompanied by hard money (in Greece’s case the euro, but a fixed exchange rate, a gold standard, or any kind of obsessive fear of inflation would do the trick), the result is not just a depression and deflation, but quite likely a failure even to reduce the debt ratio. ...
So, how does this play into U.S. policy debates? Well, Republicans love to warn that America might turn into Greece any day now. But look at the policy mix that is now de facto GOP orthodoxy: sharp cuts in government spending (maybe offset by tax cuts for the rich, but these won’t provide much stimulus), combined with a monetary policy obsessed with fears of dollar “debasement”. That is, the conservative side of the US political spectrum, while holding up Greece as a cautionary tale, is actually demanding that we emulate the policy mix that turned Greek debt into a complete disaster.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

'Boosting Growth Without Raising the Deficit'

I have been neglecting to post the things I write for MoneyWatch:

Boosting Growth Without Raising the Deficit: One of the lessons of the Great Recession is that monetary policy alone isn't enough to offset the effects of a massive economic downturn. Pushing the Federal Reserve's target interest rate as low as it can go, as monetary policy authorities did early in the recession, helped limit its severity.
But once interest rates are near zero, the Fed's power to stimulate the economy diminishes considerably. That means the Fed cannot, by itself, offset and overcome the forces pushing the economy into a severe recession. To accomplish that goal, fiscal policy also has to play a role.
Attempts to use fiscal policy, however, run into a big stumbling block: objections to the large increases in the deficit that come with tax cuts or additional government spending needed to stimulate the economy.
Even though the economics of large deficit increases to finance, say, infrastructure construction are supportive (worries that an increase in the national debt will cause interest rate spikes or other problems appear to be unfounded), the political will needed to pursue deficit spending on infrastructure or anything else simply isn't there.
But one message that did not come through very strongly in public discussions of economic policy during the Great Recession is that stimulative fiscal policy doesn't necessarily require an increase in the deficit. ...[more]...

Monday, June 29, 2015

'The Stimulative Effect of Redistribution'

Bart Hobijn and Alexander Nussbacher in the SF Fed's Economic Letter:

The Stimulative Effect of Redistribution, by Bart Hobijn and Alexander Nussbacher: The idea of taking from the rich and giving to the poor goes back long before the legend of Robin Hood. This kind of redistribution sounds desirable out of a sense of fairness. However, economists often judge a policy less on whether it is fair, and more in terms of whether it is efficient or inefficient, as well as whether it stimulates or slows economic activity.
In this Economic Letter we evaluate the stimulative effect of redistributing income from rich to poor households in a few distinct steps. We first provide a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation of the potential stimulus from redistributive policies. We then review the two main assumptions behind this policy prescription. We argue that the stimulative impact of such policies is likely to be lower than the simple calculation suggests. ...

Friday, June 12, 2015

Paul Krugman: Seriously Bad Ideas

Why do bad ideas prevail?:

Seriously Bad Ideas, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: One thing we’ve learned in the years since the financial crisis is that seriously bad ideas — by which I mean bad ideas that appeal to the prejudices of Very Serious People — have remarkable staying power. ...
What makes something qualify as a seriously bad idea? In general, to sound serious it must invoke big causes to explain big events... It must also absolve corporate interests and the wealthy from responsibility for what went wrong, and call for hard choices and sacrifice on the part of the little people. ...
And the ultimate example of a seriously bad idea is the determination, in the teeth of all the evidence, to declare government spending that helps the less fortunate a crucial cause of our economic problems. In the United States, I’m happy to say, this idea seems to be on the ropes... Here in Britain, however, it still reigns supreme. In particular, one important factor in the recent Conservative election triumph was the way Britain’s news media told voters, again and again, that excessive government spending under Labour caused the financial crisis. It takes almost no homework to show that this claim is absurd...
The ... really bad news is that Britain’s leaders seem to believe their own propaganda. On Wednesday, George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer and the architect of the government’s austerity policies, announced his intention to make these policies permanent. Britain, he said, should have a law requiring that the government run a budget surplus ... when the economy is growing.
It’s a remarkable proposal, and I mean that in the worst way. ... For Britain does not have a public debt problem. ... Meanwhile, Britain’s real economy is still ailing..., surely the combination of a still-weak economy, terrible productivity performance and negative borrowing costs says that this is a time to increase investment in things like infrastructure. ... Yet the Osborne proposal would kill any such initiative.
But Mr. Osborne sounds very serious, and, if history is any guide, the Labour Party won’t make any effective counterarguments.
Now, some readers are probably thinking that I’m giving the likes of Mr. Osborne too much credit for sincerity. Isn’t all this deficit obsession just an excuse to slash social programs? And I’m sure that’s part of it. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. Seriously bad ideas, I’d argue, have a life of their own. And they rule our world.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

'The Party of Fiscal Responsibility in Action'

Paul Krugman:

The Party of Fiscal Responsibility in Action: One of the greatest confidence tricks ever pulled in American politics was the way Republicans managed, for a while anyway, to convince centrists that they were apostles of fiscal responsibility. Paul Ryan presented budgets that combined huge tax cuts for the rich with not quite as huge benefit cuts for the poor, added some magic asterisks — basically deficit-increasing redistribution from the have-nots to the haves, with added fraudulence — and received awards for fiscal responsibility.
Anyway, at this point we have evidence of what such politicians actually do in office, thanks to the many US states where Republicans control both the governor’s office and the legislature. And the result is an epidemic of fiscal crisis, despite a recovering economy. Yes, some Democrat-controlled states are also having problems. But they didn’t go around pretending to be the nation’s fiscal saviors, and the biggest state controlled by Democrats, California — which was supposed to be a basket case — is in quite good fiscal shape.
And yes, I think this observation is a lot more important than Marco Rubio’s personal financial difficulties, although those are pretty bizarre.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

'Austerity as a Knowledge Transmission Mechanism failure'

Related to the post after this one, from Simon Wren-Lewis:

Austerity as a Knowledge Transmission Mechanism failure: In this post I talked about the Knowledge Transmission Mechanism: the process by which academic ideas do or do not get translated into economic policy. I pointed to the importance of what I called ‘policy intermediaries’ in this process: civil servants, think tanks, policy entrepreneurs, the media, and occasionally financial sector economists and central banks. Here I want to ask whether thinking about these intermediaries could help explain the continuing popularity amongst policy makers of austerity during a liquidity trap, even though there is an academic consensus behind the idea that austerity now would harm output. ...

'The Economic Consequences of Austerity'

From today's links, Amartya Sen on the turn to austerity during the Great Recession (there's a lot more in the full text):

The economic consequences of austerity, by Amartya Sen: ...As it is quite common these days to blame economists for failing to see the real world, I take this opportunity to note that very few professionally trained economists were persuaded by the direction in which those in charge of European finances decided to take Europe. The European debacle demonstrated, in effect, that you do not need economists to generate a holy mess: the financial sector can generate its own gory calamity with the greatest of elegance and ease. Further, if the policy of austerity deepened Europe’s economic problems, it did not help in the aimed objective of reducing the ratio of debt to GDP to any significant extent – in fact, sometimes quite the contrary. ...
If failing to understand some basic Keynesian relations is a part of the explanation of what happened, there was also another, and more subtle, story behind the confounded economics of austerity. There was an odd confusion in policy thinking between the real need for institutional reform in Europe and the imagined need for austerity – two quite different things. There can be little doubt that Europe has needed, for quite some time, many serious institutional reforms – from the avoidance of tax evasion and the fixing of more reasonable retiring ages to sensible working hours and the elimination of institutional rigidities, including those in the labour markets. But the real (and strong) case for institutional reform has to be distinguished from an imagined case for indiscriminate austerity, which does not do anything to change a system while hugely inflicting pain. ...
An analogy can help to make the point clearer: it is as if a person had asked for an antibiotic for his fever, and been given a mixed tablet with antibiotic and rat poison. You cannot have the antibiotic without also having the rat poison. We were in effect being told that if you want economic reform then you must also have, along with it, economic austerity, although there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why the two must be put together as a chemical compound. For example, having sensible retiring ages, which many European countries do not (a much-needed institutional reform), is not similar to cutting severely the pensions on which the lives of the working poor may depend (a favourite of austeritarians). The compounding of the two – not least in the demands made on Greece – has made it much harder to pursue institutional reforms. ...

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Krugman vs. DeLong

Krugman vs. DeLong has an outcome that follows DeLong's rule:

Krugman: The Inflationista Puzzle: Martin Feldstein has a new column on what he calls the “inflation puzzle” — the failure of inflation to soar despite the Fed’s large asset purchases, which led to a very large rise in the monetary base. As Tony Yates points out, however, there’s nothing puzzling at all about what happened; it’s exactly what you should expect when interest rates are near zero.
And this isn’t an ex-post rationale, it’s what many of us were saying from the beginning. Traditional IS-LM analysis said that the Fed’s policies would have little effect on inflation; so did the translation of that analysis into a stripped-down New Keynesian framework that I did back in 1998, starting the modern liquidity-trap literature. ...
DeLong: New Economic Thinking, Hicks-Hansen-Wicksell Macro, and Blocking the Back Propagation Induction-Unraveling from the Long Run Omega Point: ... Whatever may be going on in the short run must thus be transitory in duration, moderate in their effects, and limited in the distance it can can push the economy away from its proper long run equilibrium. And it certainly cannot keep it there. Not for long.
This is the real critique of Paul Krugman’s “depression economics”. Paul can draw his Hicksian IS-LM diagrams of an economy stuck in a liquidity trap...
He can draw his Wicksellian I=S diagrams of how the zero lower bound forces the market interest rate above the natural interest rate at which planned investment balances savings that would be expected were the economy at full employment...
Paul can show, graphically, that conventional monetary policy is then completely ineffective–swapping two assets that are perfect substitutes for each other. Paul can show, graphically, that expansionary fiscal policy is then immensely powerful and has no downside: it does not generate higher interest rates; it does not crowd out productive private investment; and, because interest rates are zero, it entails no financing burden and thus no required increase in future tax wedges. But all this is constrained and limited by the inescapable and powerful logic of the induction-unraveling propagating itself back through the game tree from the Omega Point that is the long run equilibrium. In the IS-LM diagram, the fact that the long run is out there means that even the contemplation of permanent expansion of the monetary base is rapidly moving the IS curve up and to the right, and thus leading the economy to quickly exist the liquidity trap. In the Wicksellian I=S diagram, the fact that the long run is out there means that even the contemplation of permanent expansion of the monetary base is rapidly moving the I=S curve up so that the zero lower bound will soon no longer constrain the economy away from its full-employment equilibrium.
The “depression economics” equilibrium Paul plots on his graph is a matter for today–a month or two, or a quarter or two, or at most a year or two. ...
Krugman:Backward Induction and Brad DeLong (Wonkish): Brad DeLong is, unusually, unhappy with my analysis in a discussion of the inflationista puzzle — the mystery of why so many economists failed to grasp the implications of a liquidity trap, and still fail to grasp those implications despite 6 years of being wrong. Brad sorta-kinda defends the inflationistas on the basis of backward induction; I find myself somewhat baffled by that defense.

Actually, I find myself baffled both theoretically and empirically. ...

In the end, while the post-2008 slump has gone on much longer than even I expected (thanks in part to terrible fiscal policy), and the downward stickiness of wages and prices has been more marked than I imagined, overall the model those of us who paid attention to Japan deployed has done pretty well — and it’s kind of shocking how few of those who got everything wrong are willing to learn from their failure and our success.
DeLong: Paul Krugman Was Right. I, Ken Rogoff, Marty Feldstein, and Many, Many Others Were Wrong: The question is: Why were we wrong? We had, after all, read, learned, and taught the same Hicks-Hansen-Wicksell-Metzler-Tobin macro that was Paul Krugman’s foundation. ...

I want to highlight one of Brad's points. Theoretical models often act as if there is only one type of demand shock, and the short-run depends upon a single variable, e.g. the time period when inflation expectations are wrong. But the short-run depends upon the type of recession we experience, and the variable that signals the length of the recovery will not be the same in every case. A monetary induced recession will have a much shorter short-run than a balance sheet recession induced by a financial collapse, and an recession caused by an oil price shock will recover differently from both. Early in the Great Recession, policymakers, analysts, and most economists did not fully recognize that this recession truly was different, and hence required a different policy approach from the recessions in recent memory. Krugman, due to his work on Japan, did see this early on, but it took time for the notion of a balance sheet recession to take hold, and we never fully adopted fiscal policy to deal with this fact (e.g. sufficient help with rebuilding household balance sheets). To me this in one of the big lessons of the Great Recession -- we must figure out the type of recession we are experiencing, realize that the "short-run" will depend critically on the type of shock causing the recession, and adopt our policies accordingly. If we can do that, then maybe the short-run won't be a decade long the next time we have a balance sheet recession. And there will be a next time.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

'Stop Obsessing Over Debt and Watch Growth Flourish, IMF Economists Argue'

From those radicals at the IMF:

Stop Obsessing Over Debt and Watch Growth Flourish, IMF Economists Argue: ...Rather than being obsessed by debt, some countries should spur growth by not paying down their debt, argue top economists from the IMF, the institution largely tasked with helping countries cut their debt burdens. ...
Jonathan Ostry, deputy director of the IMF’s Research Department, and two other economists in his division, Atish Ghosh and Raphael Espinoza. ... say that many policy makers—here’s looking in particular at you, Berlin—have a “debt obsession” and aren’t fully factoring in the cost of insuring against future crises by paying down the debt.
“Advocates of ‘fixing the debt problem’ stress the crisis-insurance benefit, without mentioning the upfront cost of insurance,” Mr. Ostry said. “Insurance can be expensive in terms of the higher taxation needed to run a budget surplus.” ...
They aren’t arguing for all countries to halt their plans to cut debt. Rather, they contend that some countries have room in their budgets to spend more to stimulate growth without raising borrowing costs and fueling investors’ concerns. ... “For countries that have fiscal space, the cost of insurance is likely to be much larger than the benefit,” Mr. Ostry said. ...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

'Conservatives and Keynes'

This, from Paul Krugman, is sort of a setup for the post below this one:

Conservatives and Keynes: ...the debate over business-cycle economics has always been a left-right thing. Specifically, the right has always been deeply hostile to the notion that expansionary fiscal policy can ever be helpful or austerity harmful; most of the time it has been hostile to expansionary monetary policy too... So the politicization of the macro debate isn’t some happenstance, it evidently has deep roots.
Oh, and some of us have been discussing those roots in articles and blog posts for years now. We’ve noted that after World War II there was a concerted, disgraceful effort by conservatives and business interests to prevent the teaching of Keynesian economics in the universities, an effort that succeeded in killing the first real Keynesian textbook. Samuelson, luckily, managed to get past that barrier — and many were the complaints. ...
What’s it all about, then? The best stories seem to involve ulterior political motives. Keynesian economics, if true, would mean that governments don’t have to be deeply concerned about business confidence, and don’t have to respond to recessions by slashing social programs. Therefore it must not be true, and must be opposed. ...
If you think I’m being too flip, too conspiracy-minded, or both, OK — but what’s your explanation? For conservative hostility to Keynes is not an intellectual fad of the moment. It has absolutely consistent for generations, and is clearly very deep-seated.

 

'1776: The Revolt Against Austerity'

Steve Pincus at the New York Review of Books:

1776: The Revolt Against Austerity: Was the Declaration of Independence a powerful indictment of British austerity policies? Does America’s founding document need to be seen as part of an economic debate about the British Empire? ... Just as political debates in Britain and the United States today turn in large part on the response to the great recession of 2008, so the events that made the United States were shaped by the British imperial government’s reaction to the debt crisis of the 1760s. What made the Declaration so offensive to British politicians then ... is that America’s founders offered a blueprint for a different kind of state response to fiscal crisis. ... [explains how debt crisis led to austerity policies for the colonies] ...
What alternative strategy did the authors of the Declaration propose? Today, we tend to regard the practice of using government spending to stimulate economic growth as an invention of John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s. But already in the eighteenth century, self-styled Patriots, followers of Pitt on both sides of the Atlantic, argued that what the British Empire needed if it was to recover from the fiscal crisis was not austerity but an economic stimulus. ...
Twenty-first century American politicians routinely draw our attention to our founding moment and founding document... But they fail to understand the economic arguments that in large measure shaped what Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues wrote. When Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin proudly proclaims that “we celebrate the fourth of July and not April 15, because in America we celebrate our independence from the government, not our dependence on them [sic],” he fails to see that our founders blamed George III and his government not for taxing too much but for doing too little to stimulate consumer demand. ...
America’s founding document called for an American state that would promote economic growth just as the British state had done before the shift toward balancing the books. ... Had George III and his ministers not adopted austerity measures in the 1760s and 1770s, had they chosen to follow Pitt’s policies of economic stimulus, America’s founders might not have needed to declare their independence at all.

[That's only a small part of the essay -- there's a lot more in the full post, e.g. an argument the Adam Smith supported expansionary policy for the colonies.]

Saturday, May 02, 2015

'Assessing the Effects of Monetary and Fiscal Policy'

From the NBER Reporter:

Assessing the Effects of Monetary and Fiscal Policy, by Emi Nakamura and Jón Steinsson, NBER Reporter 2015 Number 1: Research Summary: Monetary and fiscal policies are central tools of macroeconomic management. This has been particularly evident since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. In response to the global financial crisis, U.S. short-term interest rates were lowered to zero, a large fiscal stimulus package was implemented, and the Federal Reserve engaged in a broad array of unconventional policies.
Despite their centrality, the question of how effective these policies are and therefore how the government should employ them is in dispute. Many economists have been highly critical of the government's aggressive use of monetary and fiscal policy during this period, in some cases arguing that the policies employed were ineffective and in other cases warning of serious negative consequences. On the other hand, others have argued that the aggressive employment of these policies has "walk[ed] the American economy back from the edge of a second Great Depression."1
In our view, the reason for this controversy is the absence of conclusive empirical evidence about the effectiveness of these policies. Scientific questions about how the world works are settled by conclusive empirical evidence. In the case of monetary and fiscal policy, unfortunately, it is very difficult to establish such evidence. The difficulty is a familiar one in economics, namely endogeneity. ..

After explaining the endogeneity problem, empirical evidence on price rigidity and its importance for assessing policy, structural modeling, natural experiments, and so on, they turn to their evidence:

Our identification approach is to study how real interest rates respond to monetary shocks in the 30-minute intervals around Federal Open Market Committee announcements. We find that in these short intervals, nominal and real interest rates for maturities as long as several years move roughly one-for-one with each other. Changes in nominal interest rates at the time of monetary announcements therefore translate almost entirely into changes in real interest rates, while expected inflation moves very little except at very long horizons.
We use this evidence to estimate the parameters of a conventional monetary business cycle model. ... This approach suggests that monetary non-neutrality is large. Intuitively, our evidence indicates that a monetary shock that yields a substantial response for real interest rates also yields a very small response for inflation. This suggests that prices respond quite sluggishly to changes in aggregate economic conditions and that monetary policy can have large effects on the economy.
Another area in which there has been rapid progress in using innovative identification schemes to estimate the impact of macroeconomic policy is that of fiscal stimulus.9 ... Much of the literature on fiscal stimulus that makes use of natural experiments focuses on the effects of war-time spending, since it is assumed that in some cases such spending is unrelated to the state of the economy. Fortunately - though unfortunately for empirical researchers - there are only so many large wars, so the number of data points available from this approach is limited.
In our work, we use cross-state variation in military spending to shed light on the fiscal multiplier.10 The basic idea is that when the U.S. experiences a military build-up, military spending will increase in states such as California - a major producer of military goods - relative to states, such as Illinois, where there is little military production. This approach uses a lot more data than the earlier literature on military spending but makes weaker assumptions, since we require only that the U.S. did not undertake a military build-up in response to the relative weakness of the economy in California vs. Illinois. We show that a $1 increase in military spending in California relative to Illinois yields a relative increase in output of $1.50. In other words, the "relative" multiplier is quite substantial.11
There is an important issue of interpretation here. We find evidence of a large "relative multiplier," but does this imply that the aggregate multiplier also will be large? The challenge that arises in interpreting these kinds of relative estimates is that there are general equilibrium effects that are expected to operate at an aggregate but not at a local level. In particular, if government spending is increased at the aggregate level, this will induce the Federal Reserve to tighten monetary policy, which will then counteract some of the stimulative effect of the increased government spending. This type of general equilibrium effect does not arise at the local level, since the Fed can't raise interest rates in California vs. Illinois in response to increased military spending in California relative to Illinois.
We show in our paper, however, that the relative multiplier does have a very interesting counterpart at the level of the aggregate economy. Even in the aggregate setting, the general equilibrium response of monetary policy to fiscal policy will be constrained when the risk-free nominal interest rate is constrained by its lower bound of zero. Our relative multiplier corresponds more closely to the aggregate multiplier in this case.12 Our estimates are, therefore, very useful in distinguishing between new Keynesian models, which generate large multipliers in these scenarios, and plain vanilla real business cycle models, which always generate small multipliers.
The evidence from our research on both fiscal and monetary policy suggests that demand shocks can have large effects on output. Models with price-adjustment frictions can explain such output effects, as well as (by design) the microeconomic evidence on price rigidity. Perhaps this evidence is still not conclusive, but it helps to narrow the field of plausible models. This new evidence will, we hope, help limit the scope of policy predictions of macroeconomic models that policymakers need to consider the next time they face a great challenge. ...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

'Confidence'

About that confidence fairy. This is from Simon Wren-Lewis

Confidence: Francesco Saraceno reminds us about the days in which very important people believed in the confidence fairy (aka expansionary fiscal austerity), which are not so very far away. He also points to some recent ECB research which shows that confidence - as measured by surveys - clearly falls following fiscal austerity. The confidence fairy, rather than waving her wand to make everything alright again, may be making austerity worse. 
However, looking at the research in detail revealed some results I found at first surprising. In particular, revenue cuts have a bigger effect on consumer confidence than spending cuts. In terms of GDP impacts, theory - and most but not all empirical evidence - suggests that temporary spending cuts will have a larger impact on overall activity than temporary tax increases, if there is no monetary offset and incentive effects are not very large. Do these empirical results contradiction this?
To answer that you need to ask two further questions. First, what does consumer confidence actually measure? Second, and perhaps more interesting, what information do fiscal announcements actually reveal. ...[goes on to explain]...
Trying to evaluate the impact of past fiscal actions is complicated, in large part because it is difficult to know what the counterfactual was, or what people thought the counterfactual was. Were changes thought to temporary or permanent? (Governments hardly ever say, and even if they did would they be trusted?) To what extent do people internalise the government’s budget constraint? If they do, are fiscal changes telling us about the timing of taxes or spending, or their mix, or something else? It seems to me that these difficulties arise whether we are trying to assess the impact of fiscal changes on confidence, or on activity itself.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

'Fiscal policy Procyclicality and Output Forecast Errors: Bad Luck or Bad Decisions?'

Why do developing countries pursue destabilizing, procyclical fiscal policy? This is from Guillermo Vuletin and Leopoldo Avellan at Brookings:

Fiscal policy procyclicality and output forecast errors: Bad luck or bad decisions?: It is well-known that government spending has historically been procyclical in the developing world (Tornell and Lane, 1999; Kaminsky, Reinhart, and Vegh, 2004; Frankel, Vegh, and Vuletin, 2013).[1] Thus, government spending in these regions typically increases during periods of expansion and decreases during periods of recession. Unfortunately, this procyclical fiscal behavior reinforces output fluctuations, exacerbating booms and aggravating busts. Traditional explanations for this undesirable behavior have mostly revolved around the explicit or implicit notion that fiscal procyclicality is the deliberate result of political economy distortions and weak institutions (e.g., policymakers' short-sightedness and political pressure to spend when resources are available in good times, leaving few resources to spend in bad times).
Since the global financial crisis and, more recently, the sudden severe drop in commodity prices, important and frequent revisions in output growth forecasts around the world have become a new norm. This trend, in turn, has triggered heated debates in both policy and academic circles and the media about how governments should handle these frequent reassessments.
As a consequence of this debate, two strands of the fiscal procyclicality literature related to output forecast errors have been increasingly gaining support. While different in origin and nature, both strands put the emphasis (or even blame) on output forecast errors in determining fiscal procyclicality. These strands include:
1. Over-optimism in output forecasts (Frankel, 2011a; Frankel, 2011b; Frankel and Schreger, 2013). ...
2. Real-time data and misinformation literature (Forni and Momigliano, 2004; Golinelli and Momigliano, 2006 and 2008; Bernoth, Hughes Hallett, and Lewis, 2008; Cimadomo, 2012; Croushore and van Norden, 2013). ...
A recent paper by Avellan and Vuletin (2015) takes issue with these views and shows that, in fact, traditional political economy arguments and weak institutions help explain how governments handle unanticipated output fluctuations. ...

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Monetary and Fiscal Policy in a Post-Inflation World

Alice Rivlin:

Thoughts about monetary and fiscal policy in a post-inflation world, Brookings: ... Why are we still so focused on fighting inflation? Why are so many people in this room devoting so much time and attention to guessing when the Federal Reserve will start raising short-term interest rates and get back to its “normal” job of protecting us from inflation? Is inflation an important threat to our economic well-being? Is when to raise interest rates the most urgent question facing the Fed at the moment? Or are we suffering from cultural lag?
Collecting linguistic evidence of cultural lags is a minor hobby of mine. I smile when I catch myself referring to the refrigerator as the “ice box,” because that was what my mother called it... I am amused when young people tell me their phones are “ringing off the hook.” Have they ever used a phone with a receiver on a hook? When bureaucrats say they are eager to break out of their silos, I wonder if they if they have ever lived on a farm or anywhere close to a silo. So when politicians and financial journalists ask me earnestly, as they do, whether the Federal Reserve isn’t risking devastating “run-away” inflation by buying all those bonds, I suspect cultural lag. What Inflation? We should be so lucky! Central banks have amply proved that they know how to stop inflation—Paul Volcker showed that. They have been much less successful in getting little inflation going.
A lecture in honor of Paul Volcker is the perfect occasion for raising the fundamental question: are the major advanced economies (US, Europe, Japan) facing a new normal for which current tools of monetary, fiscal, and regulatory policy need to be restructured? ...
Over-coming cultural lag in order to prosper in a post-inflation world will take significant shifts in the mind-set of economists, economic policy-makers, politicians and the public. I see four major challenges to current thinking:
  • We have to recognize that the main job of central banks is avoiding financial crisis.
  • We will have to get used to central banks operating at quite low interest rates much of the time and managing big balance sheets without apologies.
  • We have to rehabilitate budget policy to make it useable again and move to a sustainable debt track at the same time
  • We have to find constitutional ways of reducing the power of big money in politics and economic policy—or change the Constitution.

I will get back to these four challenges, but first a very quick tour through the macro-policy landscape of the last five or six decades. ...

And, later in the essay (it is relatively long, and I don't agree with every single point that is made, e.g. when she defends ‘Simpson-Bowlesism’ and discusses the need to rein in entitlement spending, and when she argues against selling the idea "that unspecified government spending would add to aggregate demand and accelerate the recovery without adverse consequences to the long-run debt... Unspecified spending and near-term debt increase are what the public and elected officials fear, and they are skeptical of fee lunches. Instead, we have to make the case for very specific public investments that can be shown to have positive impacts on productivity growth and future prosperity" -- deficit spending in a recession has a role to play in stimulating the economy in the short-run, we shouldn't focus only on the long-run growth potential of policy -- but I do agree with the the general thrust of her comments):

... Political polarization has led to angry confrontations over the budget for the last several years complete with threats to shut down the government or default on the national debt and bizarre budget decision processes, such as the Super Committee, the fiscal cliff, and sequestration. These shenanigans are unworthy of a mature democracy and horrendously destructive of confidence in rational economic governance. The result has been worse than gridlock. It has been insanely counterproductive budget policy at a time when the federal budget could have been contributing both to faster recovery and to longer run productivity growth.
I believe the Great Recession would have been longer and deeper without the stimulus package of 2009.[8] If the stimulus had been larger and lasted longer, recovery would have been more robust and the Fed might not have found it necessary to do so much quantitative easing. Indeed, it is pretty crazy economics for a country trying to climb out of a deep recession to put the burden of accelerating a recovery on the monetary authorities—a job they have never been great at—in the face of sharply declining federal deficits that made the task of stimulating recovery with monetary tools a lot more challenging. But that is what we did.
I also believe that the United States has been dangerously under-investing in public infrastructure, scientific research, and the skills of our future labor force. Doing everything we can to nudge productivity growth back up again is essential to future prosperity. With the private investment awaiting more demand and confidence, the public sector should be moving strongly into the breach with well-structured investment in everything from roads to technical training to basic research. Instead, our bizarre budget process has been squeezed the very budget accounts that contain most opportunity for public investment. Discretionary spending is at record lows in relation to the size of the economy and headed lower while the highway trust fund is running dry. How crazy is that?
Making budget policy useful again will take major shifts in political thinking, and here I think economists can help if they use arguments the public and politicians can relate to. First, I would recommend not pushing the argument that unspecified government spending would add to aggregate demand and accelerate the recovery without adverse consequences to the long-run debt. Ball, Summers and DeLong may well be right that hysteresis is so serious a consequence of recession that spending now would juice recovery enough to bring down long run debt.[9] But they are never going to sell that argument. Unspecified spending and near-term debt increase are what the public and elected officials fear, and they are skeptical of fee lunches.
Instead, we have to make the case for very specific public investments that can be shown to have positive impacts on productivity growth and future prosperity. This should not be an argument for larger government, but for shifting from less to more effective government spending and from consumption-oriented spending (including spending in the tax code) to growth oriented spending over time. And, oh yes, that means making the tax code more progressive, more pro-growth, and raising additional revenue, as well as restructuring entitlement programs. There is plenty is such an agenda for both liberals and conservatives to like—if only they could be persuaded to talk about it. ...

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

'Spending on Our Crumbling Infrastructure'

David Wessel:

Spending on Our Crumbling Infrastructure: Larry Summers recently said something startling: “At this moment . . . the share of public investment in GDP, adjusting for depreciation, so that’s net share, is zero. Zero. We’re not net investing at all, nor is Western Europe”...
In other words, total federal, state, and local government investment is enough to cover only the amount of wear and tear on bridges, roads, airports, rails, and pipes. “Can that possibly make sense?” asked the former Treasury secretary, who has been campaigning for more government spending on infrastructure.
I wondered whether Mr. Summers was hyping the data to make his point. So I checked. ... Mr. Summers wasn’t exaggerating. ...
All this is happening at a time when the U.S. government can borrow money at very low interest rates... It would seem a good time for the government to borrow for long-term investments, as Mr. Summers frequently says. ...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

'Can Helicopter Money be Democratic?'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Can helicopter money be democratic?: Helicopter money started as an abstract thought experiment..., in technical terms this is a combination of monetary policy (the creation of money) and fiscal policy (the government giving individuals money). Economists call such combinations a money financed fiscal stimulus. With the advent of Quantitative Easing (QE), it has also been called QE for the people.
Some have tried to suggest that central banks could undertake helicopter money for the first time without the involvement of governments. This is a fantasy that those who dislike the idea of government have concocted. Others who dislike the idea of fiscal policy have suggested that helicopter money is not really a fiscal transfer. That is also nonsense. ...
If initiation by the central bank is the defining feature of helicopter money, and this policy always requires the cooperation of government, might it be possible to imagine a form of helicopter money that was more ‘democratic’? ... A left wing government might decide that, rather than giving money to everyone including the rich, it would be better to increase transfers to the poor. A right wing government might decide it should only go to ‘hard working families’, and turn it into a tax break. We could call this democratic helicopter money.
I can see two problems with democratic helicopter money. ...
Given these problems, why even think about democratic helicopter money? One reason may be political. A long time ago I proposed giving the central bank limited powers to make temporary changes to a small set of predefined tax rates, and I found myself defending that idea in front of the UK’s Treasury Select Committee. To say that the MPs were none too keen on my idea would be an understatement. Making helicopter money democratic may be what has to happen to get politicians to support the idea.

Monday, February 23, 2015

'Even Better Than a Tax Cut'

Larry Mishel:

Even Better Than a Tax Cut: With the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign underway and millions of Americans still hurting financially, both parties are looking for ways to address wage stagnation. That’s the good news. The bad news is that both parties are offering tax cuts as a solution. What has hurt workers’ paychecks is not what the government takes out, but what their employers no longer put in — a dynamic that tax cuts cannot eliminate. ...
Yes, a one-time reduction in taxes through, say, expanded child care credits or a secondary earner tax break, as Democrats propose, could help families. But as wages continue to stagnate, it is impossible to continuously cut taxes and still pay for things like education and social programs for the growing population of older Americans. ...
Contrary to conventional wisdom, wage stagnation is not a result of forces beyond our control. It is a result of a policy regime that has undercut the individual and collective bargaining power of most workers. Because wage stagnation was caused by policy, it can be reversed by policy, too.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Paul Krugman: The Long-Run Cop-Out

Focusing on the long-run and avoiding the harder, more important short-run questions is "craven and irresponsible"

The Long-Run Cop-Out, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: On Monday, President Obama will call for a significant increase in spending, reversing the harsh cuts of the past few years. He won’t get all he’s asking for, but it’s a move in the right direction. And it also marks a welcome shift in the discourse. ... It’s often said that the problem with policy makers is that they’re too focused on the next election, that they look for short-term fixes while ignoring the long run. But the story of economic policy and discourse these past five years has been exactly the opposite.
Think about it: Faced with mass unemployment and the enormous waste it entails, for years the Beltway elite devoted almost all their energy not to promoting recovery, but to Bowles-Simpsonism — to devising “grand bargains” that would address the supposedly urgent problem of how we’ll pay for Social Security and Medicare a couple of decades from now.
And this bizarre long-termism isn’t just an American phenomenon. ...
Am I saying that the long run doesn’t matter? Of course not, although some forms of long-termism don’t make sense even on their own terms. Think about the notion that “entitlement reform” is an urgent priority..., why, exactly, is it crucial that we deal with the threat of future benefits cuts by locking in plans to cut future benefits?...
All too often, or so it seems to me, people who insist that questions of austerity and stimulus are unimportant are actually trying to avoid hard thinking about the nature of the economic disaster that has overtaken so much of the world.
And they’re also trying to avoid taking a stand that will expose them to attack. Discussions of short-run fiscal and monetary policy are politically charged. ... I understand why it’s tempting to dismiss the whole debate and declare that the really important issues involve the long run. But while people who say that kind of thing like to pose as brave and responsible, they’re actually ducking the hard stuff — which is to say, being craven and irresponsible. ...
So it’s important to understand who’s really irresponsible here. In today’s economic and political environment, long-termism is a cop-out, a dodge, a way to avoid sticking your neck out. And it’s refreshing to see signs that Mr. Obama is willing to break with the long-termers and focus on the here and now.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

'Saying the Obvious' (about Fiscal Policy)

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Saying the obvious: Give any student who has just done a year of economics some national accounts data for the US, UK and Eurozone, and ask them why the recovery from the Great Recession has been so slow, and they will almost certainly tell you it is because of fiscal austerity. And they would be right, as I set out in this recent VoxEU piece. There I present some back of the envelope calculations, but they are confirmed by model simulations: not just those I quoted in the text, but also others that I did not have space to mention.
When writing that piece, I kept having doubts. Not about the analysis, but just that this was all so obvious. It uses basic models (DSGE or more eclectic) that we teach undergraduates and postgraduates. It is supported by the clear majority of empirical evidence. I felt like I was telling people the macroeconomic equivalent of a rise in the demand for apples will mean an increase in their price.

The reason I put those doubts aside are also familiar. The fact that at least half the world’s politicians and mediamacro continue to ignore the obvious. ...

Economics is always in danger of being corrupted by politics and ideology, and macroeconomics seems particularly vulnerable in this respect. ... Some say that this corruption is inevitable and that we should embrace it, rather than attempt to avoid it through delegation to institutions like independent central banks. I disagree: demand management is basically a technical issue with political implications. If we did not have independent central banks today, I suspect we would be seeing the US congress voting to raise interest rates. And of course there would be a few economists with their models saying it was a good idea, even though the vast majority thought otherwise. ...

We therefore need to rethink how stabilisation policy is done at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB)..., so it would be prudent to complete the delegation of macroeconomic stabilisation policy that was begun by making the operation of interest rate policy independent of political control. Doing that would also be a good opportunity to revisit the arrangements that can ensure independence is compatible with accountability and some degree of democratic oversight.   

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Fiscal Cliff Forecasts

Robert Waldmann:

2013 and all that II: A fairly large number of economists have argued that Keynesians predicted that the fiscal cliff January 2013 and sequestration March 2013 would cause a recession. A fairly large number of Keynesian economists have denied personally making that prediction (including the oversigned). Only following a complaint in comments will I look up all the links at which I just hinted.
I think it is fairly easy to decide if the orthodox Keynesian view was that 2013 fiscal contraction would cause a recession. The reason is that official forecasts are Keynesian. The forecasting models range from new Keynesian with added epicycles for the Bank of England to paleo Keynesian for the Fed.
So I decided to look up forecasts for 2013. The advantage is that official forecasts include a precise guess of the expected value of future variables...