Commentators are taking note of the five-year anniversary of the fiscal stimulus that President Obama enacted during his first month in office. Those who don’t like Obama are still asking “if the fiscal stimulus was so great, why didn’t it work?” What is the appropriate response?
Those who think that the spending increases and tax cuts were the right thing to do have given a number of responses, which sound a bit weak to me. The first is that the stimulus wasn’t big enough. The second was that the Great Recession would have been much worse in the absence of the stimulus, perhaps a replay of the Great Depression of the 1930s. (The media are fond of this line of reasoning because it allows them to escape making a judgment. They can just say “nobody knows what would have happened otherwise.”) The third response is that the fiscal stimulus was short-lived, and in fact was reversed by the Congress by 2010.
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.
Now that Janet Yellen is to be Chair of the US Federal Reserve Board, attention has turned to the candidate to succeed her as Vice Chair. Stanley Fischer would be the perfect choice. He has an ideal combination of all the desirable qualities, unique in the literal sense that nobody else has them. During his academic career, Fischer was one of the most accomplished scholars of monetary economics. Subsequently he served as Chief Economist of the World Bank, number two at the International Monetary Fund, and most recently Governor of the central bank of Israel. He was a star performer in each of these positions. I thought in 2000 he should have been made Managing Director of the IMF.
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.”
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.]
A survey of economists is published in the November 2012 issue of Foreign Policy. One question was whether we thought that the US unemployment rate would dip below 8.0% before the election. When the FP conducted the poll at the end of the summer, unemployment was 8.1-8.2%. Now it’s 7.8%. Only 8% of the respondents said “yes.” (I was one. I basically just extrapolated the trend of the last two years.)
My fellow economists choose defense spending and agricultural subsidies as the two categories of US federal budget that they think the best to cut. They rate the euro crisis as the greatest threat to the world economy now and are particularly worried about Spain.