The BLS this morning reported U.S. job gains of 163,000 in July, which is good news in the eyes of the financial markets. The jobs data had been disappointing over the preceding three spring months. Before that, during the winter months, employment growth was strong.
In terms of perceptions and politics, pundits will say that today’s report is good news for Obama’s re-election prospects, just as they said the spring jobs numbers were bad news for the President. But my interest is in economics and reality, rather than perceptions and politics. From a longer-term perspective, a few important facts have not been adequately discussed.
My preceding post bemoaned the tendency for many US politicians to exhibit a procyclicalist pattern: supporting tax cuts and spending increases when the economy is booming, which should be the time to save money for a rainy day, and then re-discovering the evils of budget deficits only in times of recession, thus supporting fiscal contraction at precisely the wrong time. Procyclicalists exacerbate the magnitude of the swings in the business cycle.
This is not just an American problem. A similar unfortunate cycle — large fiscal deficits when the economy is already expanding anyway, followed by fiscal contraction in response to a recession — has also been visible in the United Kingdom and euroland in recent years. Greece and Portugal are the two most infamous examples. But the larger European countries, as well, failed to take advantage of the expansionary period 2003-07 to strengthen their public finances, and instead ran budget deficits in excess of the limits (3% of GDP) that they were supposed to obey under the Stability and Growth Pact. Then, over the last few years, politicians in both the UK and the continent have made their recessions worse by imposing aggressive fiscal austerity at precisely the wrong time.
The world is in the grip of a debate between fiscal austerity and fiscal stimulus. Opponents of austerity worry about contractionary effects on the economy. Opponents of stimulus worry about indebtedness and moral hazard.
Is austerity good or bad? It is as foolish to debate this proposition as it would be to debate whether it is better for a driver to turn left or right. It depends where the car is on the road. Sometimes left is appropriate, sometimes right. When an economy is in a boom, the government should run a surplus; other times, when in recession, it should run a deficit.
Why do so many countries so often wander far off the path of fiscal responsibility? Concern about budget deficits has become a burning political issue in the United States, has helped persuade the United Kingdom to enact stringent cuts despite a weak economy, and is the proximate cause of the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, which has grown to engulf the entire eurozone. Indeed, among industrialized countries, hardly a one is immune from fiscal woes.
Clearly, part of the blame lies with voters who don’t want to hear that budget discipline means cutting programs that matter to them, and with politicians who tell voters only what they want to hear. But another factor has attracted insufficient notice: systematically over-optimistic official forecasts.
With November’s election fast approaching, the Republican candidates seeking to challenge President Barack Obama claim that his policies have done nothing to support recovery from the recession that he inherited in January 2009. If anything, they claim, his fiscal stimulus made matters worse. And, despite recent improvement, the level of unemployment indeed remains far too high.not blame George W. Bush for the recession that began two months after he took office in 2001. There hadn’t yet been time for bad policies to damage the economy.)
The Obama Recovery. The U.S. economy was in free fall in late 2008, whether measured by GDP statistics, the monthly jobs numbers, or inter-bank spreads. Was the end of the recession in mid-2009 attributable to policies adopted by President Obama? A full evaluation of that question to economists’ standards would require delving into the complexity of mathematical models. The public generally has a simpler standard: was the impact big enough to be visible to the naked eye? Amazingly, the answer is “yes.” Whichever of those statistics one looks at, and whether it is coincidence or not: the economic free-fall ended almost precisely the month that Obama took office, January 2009.
Emerging markets have generally had much better economic fundamentals over the last decade than advanced economies. For example, one third of developing countries have succeeded in breaking the historical syndrome of procyclical (destabilizing) fiscal policy. For the first time, they took advantage of the boom of 2003-08 to strengthen their budget balances, which allowed a fiscal easing when the global recession hit in 2008-09.
The 15-year cycle in EMs. Market swings that start out based firmly on fundamentals can eventually go too far. Some emerging markets like Turkey look vulnerable this year. A crash would fit the biblical pattern: seven fat years, followed by seven lean years. Here are the last three cycles of capital flows to developing countries:
1975-81: 7 fat years (“recycling petrodollars”)
1982: crash (the international debt crisis)
1983-1989: 7 lean years (the “Lost Decade” in Latin America)
1990-1996: 7 fat years (Emerging Market boom)
1997: crash (the East Asia crisis)
1997-2003: 7 lean years (currency crises spread globally)
Obama’s slogan for the SOTU last night, “An Economy Built to Last,” was a way of referring to one of the accomplishments of his first years: successfully reviving the auto industry, which many had said couldn’t be done without nationalizing it. References to other accomplishments were stated more quickly, such as national security (withdrawal from Iraq, disposing of Osama bin Laden) or more obliquely, such as health care reform, financial reform, and arresting the freefall of the economy that Obama inherited in January 2009 (via fiscal stimulus and TARP – both of which are not especially popular programs).
THE BIGGEST THREAT TO THE GLOBAL ECONOMY IS … Anti-market bias. -Bryan Caplan • Procrastination. -Peter Diamond • Short-term thinking. -Esther Dyson • A euro meltdown. -Dean Baker • Tax-cut fanatics. -Jeffrey Frankel • The bond market. -Andy Sumner •
MY OUT-OF-THE-BOX SUGGESTION TO REVIVE THE GLOBAL ECONOMY IS Wipe out debts. -Daron Acemoglu • Require candidates for national office to pass ninth-grade tests on arithmetic, history, and geography. -Jeffrey Frankel • Double down on science. -Tyler Cowen• A government lottery where winners have mortgages, student loans, or other debt paid off. -Mark Thoma • We don’t need “out-of-the-box” solutions; we need “head-out-of-the-sand” ones. -Adam Hersh • Pray. -David Smick
US News and World Report asks, “Who is handling its debt crisis better: Europe or the United States?”My answer follows.
In both Europe and the United States, the current public debt woes are attributable to mistakes made by political leaders going back more than a decade. In both cases the tremendous magnitude of the long-term debt problems has only become evident for all to see recently, by which time it was too late for the straightforward policy solutions that were viable options previously.
Everywhere one looks, problems of fiscal policy are now center stage. Among advanced countries, the news is bad: Europe’s periphery teeters, the U.K. slashes, the U.S. deadlocks, Japan muddles. But in the rest of the world there is better news: In an historic reversal, many emerging market and developing countries have over the last decade achieved a countercyclical fiscal policy.
In the past, developing countries tended to follow procyclical fiscal policy: they increased spending (or cut taxes) during periods of expansion and cut spending (or raised taxes) during periods of recession. Many authors have documented that fiscal policy has tended to be procyclical in developing countries, in comparison with a pattern among industrialized countries that has been by and large countercyclical. (References for this proposition and others are available.) Most studies look at the procyclicality of government spending, because tax receipts are particularly endogenous with respect to the business cycle. Indeed, an important reason for procyclical spending is precisely that government receipts from taxes or mineral royalties rise in booms, and the government cannot resist the temptation or political pressure to increase spending proportionately, or even more than proportionately. One can find a similar pattern on the tax side by focusing on tax rates rather than revenues, though cross-country evidence is harder to come by.