Politico asked 8 of us for a prognosis on US growth in the new year. This was my response –
Something important will get better in 2014: Fiscal policy will stop hurting the economy. The results should show up as expansion in such service sectors as health, education and construction.
The biggest impediment to economic expansion over the last three years has been destructive budget policy coming out of the Congress: misguided fiscal drag in the short term (crude cuts in spending, especially under the sequester; the expiration a year ago of Obama’s payroll tax holiday); repeated unnecessary disruptive and uncertainty-maximizing political crises (debt ceilingshowdowns and government shutdown); and little progress on the genuine longer-term fiscal problem, which is the 40-year prognosis for U.S. debt (a result of projected rapid growth in entitlement spending). These fiscal failures have together probably subtracted well over a percentage point from U.S. growth in each of the last three years.
October 4 is the first Friday of the month, the day when the Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely reports the jobs numbers for the preceding month. Is the havoc created by our current political deadlock over fiscal policy showing up as job losses? We have no way of knowing. On October 1 the BLS closed for business, like many other “non-essential” parts of the government. There will be no more employment numbers until the shutdown ends.
Last week, Wall Street economic analysts responded to the usual surveys as to what they thought the upcoming employment numbers would be. (These surveys are what the media refers to each month when they tell you that employment rose or fell “more than economists expected.”) The median forecast in last week’s Bloomberg survey, for example, was a prediction that the BLS would report that “Payrolls increased by 175,000,” the biggest gain in four months. But there was no word on how many of the respondents recognized that there would in fact probably be no number at all on October 4, because the Labor Department would have been closed by the government shutdown.
Japan’s consumption tax rate is scheduled to increase substantially in April (from 5% to 8%). The motive is to address the long-term problem of very high debt. (Takatoshi Ito has stated the case in favor of the tax increase.) Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has apparently decided to go ahead with it. Many observers, however, are worried that the loss in purchasing power resulting from the sharp increase in the sales tax rate will send the Japanese economy back into recession.
It is very reminiscent of April 1997. I remember Larry Summers, who was then Undersecretary of the US Treasury, repeatedly warning the Japanese government that if it went ahead with the consumption tax hike that was scheduled for that date, Japan’s economy would go back into recession. I was in the US government then too. As the date drew near, I asked Summers why he persisted in offering Tokyo this unwanted advice, given that the prime minister of the day was clearly locked into the policy politically. Summers told me that he knew he was unlikely to change their minds, but that he wanted to be sure the Japanese would realize their mistake when they went ahead with the tax increase and his prediction subsequently came true – as it did.
This morning’s US employment report shows that July was the 34th consecutive month of job increases. Earlier in the week, the Commerce Department report showed that the 2nd quarter was the 16th consecutive quarter of positive GDP growth. Of course, the growth rates in employment and income have not been anywhere near as strong as we would like, nor as strong as they could be if we had a more intelligent fiscal policy in Washington. But the US economy is doing much better than what most other industrialized countries have been experiencing. Many European countries haven’t even recovered from the Great Recession, with GDPs currently still below their peaks of six years ago.
“Does Debt Matter?” is the question posed by The International Economy to 20 commentators: “The recent scrutiny of the popularized version of the Rogoff-Reinhart thesis (that growth plummets when debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP) makes clear there are no simple formulas for determining the risks in the level of a nation’s debt. …Can a realistic guide be fashioned for determining whether a nation’s debt has reached a danger zone? Or are countries from here on expected to pursue fiscal reforms only if and when a crisis sets in?”
Several of my colleagues on the Harvard faculty have recently been casualties in the cross-fire between fiscal austerians and stimulators. Economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff have received an unbelievable amount of press attention, ever since they were discovered by three researchers at the University of Massachusetts to have made a spreadsheet error in the first of two papers that examined the statistical relationship between debt and growth. They quickly conceded their mistake.
Then historian Niall Ferguson, also of Harvard, received much flack when — asked to comment on Keynes’ famous phrase “In the long run we are all dead” — he “suggested that Keynes was perhaps indifferent to the long run because he had no children, and that he had no children because he was gay.”
The International Economy magazine (Winter 2013) asks 16 authorities, “Can Changes in Exchange Rate Valuations Affect Trade Imbalances?” It is referring to the claim in a recent book by Stanford economist Ron McKinnon that pressure on China to let the renminbi appreciate against the dollar is fundamentally misconceived because such a movement in the exchange rate would not reduce China’s trade surplus nor American’s trade deficit. This is part of an old debate that pre-dates the rise of the China trade problem. Ron has long claimed that exchange rates don’t determine trade balances because they are “instead” determined by national saving versus investment. I thought PaulKrugmandemolished the argument pretty effectively 25 years ago, with a textbook graph of internal balance versus external balance. But evidently many still fall for the argument (including some of the experts in the TIE symposium). So I try again:
Europe’s fiscal compact went into effect January 1, as a result of its ratification December 21 by the 12th country, Finland, a year after German Chancellor Angela Merkel prodded eurozone leaders into agreement. The compact (technically called the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union) requires member countries to introduce laws limiting their structural government budget deficits to less than ½ % of GDP. A limit on the “structural deficit” means that a country can run a deficit above the limit to the extent — and only to the extent — that the gap is cyclical, i.e., that its economy is operating below potential due to temporary negative shocks. In other words, the target is cyclically adjusted. The budget balance rule must be adopted in each country, preferably in their national constitutions, by the end of 2013.
The year 2013 marks the 100th anniversaries of two separate major institutional innovations in American economic policy: the Constitutional Amendment enacting the federal income tax, ratified on February 3, 1913, and the law establishing the Federal Reserve, passed in December 1913.
It took some time before the two new institutions became associated with the explicit concepts of fiscal policy and monetary policy, respectively. It wasn’t until after the experience of the 1930s that they came to be viewed as potential instruments for managing the macro-economy. John Maynard Keynes, of course, pointed out the advantages of expansionary fiscal policy in circumstances like the Great Depression. Milton Friedman blamed the Depression on the Fed for allowing the money supply to fall. [Tools of fiscal policy used by governments, in addition to tax rates and tax deductions, are spending and transfers. Tools of monetary policy used by central banks include interest rates, quantities of money and credit, and instruments such as reserve requirements and foreign exchange intervention used in various (non-US) countries.]
Needless to say, the US has a long-term debt problem. The problem is long-term both in the sense that it pertains to the next several decades rather than to this year. (Indeed, the deficit/GDP ratio has been falling since 2009, despite the weakness of the economy.) The problem is also long-term in the sense that we have known about it for a long time; it was clear in 1991 and should still have been clear in 2001.
It should be almost as needless-to-say that the approaching debt ceiling bomb is not helpful in solving our fiscal situation, any more so than were previous standoffs: the January 1, 2013, fiscal cliff; before that, the August 2011 debt ceiling standoff, which led Standard and Poor’s to downgrade the credit rating of US debt for the first time in history; and before that, the 1995 shutdown of the government, which largely discredited Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The current debt ceiling bomb is, of course, another attempt to hold the country hostage under threat of blowing us all up. The conflict is usually phrased as a question of ideological polarization, a battle between fiscal conservatives and their opponents. This familiar frame does not seem right to me. There is in fact no correlation or consistency between the practice of federal fiscal discipline and the political rhetoric, either across states or across time.