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.
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.
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.
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.
The Fed has come in for a surprising amount of criticism since its decision in the fall of 2010 to launch a new round of monetary easing — Quantitative Easing 2. Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are right not to give in to these attacks.
Critiques seem to be of four sorts. (Some are mutually exclusive.)
1) “QE is weird.” Quantitative Easing entails the central bank buying a somewhat wider range of securities than the traditional short-term Treasury bills that are the usual focus of the Fed’s open market operations. This has been a bold strategy, which nobody would have predicted 3 or 4 years ago. But it has been appropriate to the equally unexpected financial crisis and recession. Some who find QE alarmingly non-standard may not realize that other central banks do this sort of thing, and that the US authorities themselves did it in the more distant past. It is amusing to recall that when Ben Bernanke was first appointed Chairman, some reacted “He is a fine economist, but he doesn’t have the market experience of a Wall Street type.” The irony is that nobody who had spent his or her career on Wall Street would have had the relevant experience to deal with the shocks of the last three years, since none of them were there in the 1930s. But as an economic historian, Bernanke had just the broader perspective that was needed. Thank heaven he did.
During much of the last decade, U.S. fiscal policy has been procyclical, that is, destabilizing. We wasted the opportunity of the 2003-07 expansion by running large budget deficits. As a result, in 2010, Washington now feels constrained by inherited debts to withdraw fiscal stimulus at a time when unemployment is still high. Fiscal policy in the UK and other European countries has been even more destabilizing over the last decade. Governments decide to expand when the economy is strong and then contract when it is weak, thereby exacerbating the business cycle.
The NBER‘s Business Cycle Dating Committee, of which I am a member, announced this morning that June 2009 was the trough of the recession that began in December 2007. It was the longest recession since the 1930s.
It is the fate of the Committee to be teased mercilessly every time we make one of our formal declarations of a turning point in the economy. We get it from both directions: We waited too late to call the end of the recession, or we did it too early. (Occasionally someone makes both criticisms simultaneously!) Even The Daily Show got in on the fun this time.
Payroll employment peaked in December, and according to numbers released today had declined by 260,000 jobs as of April. (Source: BLS.) Since we have not yet seen a single negative number on GDP growth, this job loss is easily the most tangible statistical evidence we have so far that the much-heralded recession indeed may have started in the first quarter of 2008.
It has been noted that the unemployment rate started out from a low level — averaging 4.6 % in 2007 — so that even after a period of gradual increase, it remains relatively low by historical standards: 5.0% in April. This is still inside the range that has usually been considered by politicians as too low to generate serious discontent (and by central bankers as too low to put downward pressure on wages and prices). But why, then, is there so much popular dissatisfaction with the economy?