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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
December 31 is technically the end of the first decade of the 21st century. It is perhaps an appropriate time to review one’s predictions. It seems to me that I got some things right over the last decade. Indulge me while I review the predictions that came true, before turning to those that did not work out as well.
Stock market peak At the end of the 1990s, I felt that the dizzying ascent of equity prices could not continue into the new decade, that there was “…a bubble component in the stock market” (Nov. 20, 1999). This was four months before the bubble burst in 2000. So far so good.
To us, the very weak employment report last Friday pretty much closes the argument when it comes to whether or not the economy is in recession—it is.
The model puts the chance that August will be classified as part of a recession by the NBER at 95%.Several factors push the probability so high.Most important is the ongoing labor market deterioration.The large increases in unemployment combined with the decline in payroll employment, both over the last three months, are very significant signs pointing toward recession.The decline in the stock market and the fact that housing starts are off 30% from the prior year also push up the estimated probability.
In fact, April was the only month this year for which the data did not signal a recession, as the probability temporarily dipped below 50%.The reasons for this were: (1) some temporarily better labor market data, since largely revised away; and (2) the brief rally in the equity market following the government brokered purchase of Bear Stearns.Apart from this dip, the general trend has been a slow drift up from a somewhat high probability of being in recession to a very high probability.,..
….Put differently, if the economy is not in recession now, then the meaning of the term has changed, at least according to this model.