The Case for Strengthening Automatic Fiscal Stabilizers

For decades, monetary economists viewed central banks as the “last movers.” They were relatively nimble in their ability to adjust policy to stabilize the economy as signs of a slowdown arose. In contrast, discretionary fiscal policy is difficult to implement quickly. In addition, allowing for the possibility of a constantly changing fiscal stance adds to uncertainty and raises the risk that short-run politics, rather than effective use of public resources, will drive policy. So, the ideal fiscal approach was to set policy to support long-run priorities, minimizing short-run discretionary changes that can reduce economic efficiency.

Today, because conventional monetary policy has little room to ease, the case for using fiscal policy as a cyclical stabilizer is far stronger. Unless something changes, there is a good chance that when the next recession hits, monetary policymakers will once again find themselves stuck for an extended period at the lower bound for policy rates. In the absence of a monetary policy offset, fiscal policy is likely to be significantly more effective.

Against this background, a new book from The Hamilton Project and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Recession Ready: Fiscal Policies to Stabilize the American Economy, makes a compelling case for strengthening automatic fiscal stabilizers. These are the tax, transfer and spending components that change with economic conditions, as the law prescribes….

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Fiscal Sustainability: A Primer

Nobody likes taxes, so public spending frequently exceeds revenues, leading governments to borrow. These budget deficits are a flow that add to the stock of debt. Since the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, public debt in a number of advanced economies has surged. In the United States. the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently projected that―in the absence of policy changes―federal debt held by the public is headed for record highs (as a ratio to GDP) in coming decades.

Importantly, there is a real (inflation-adjusted) limit to how much public debt a government can issue (see Sargent and Wallace). Beyond that limit, the consequences are outright default or, if the debt is in domestic currency bonds that the central bank acquires, inflation that erodes its real value leading to a partial default.

Ultimately, debt sustainability requires that a country’s ratio of public debt to GDP stabilize. Otherwise, debt eventually will rise above the real limit and trigger default or inflation. In this note, we derive and interpret a simple debt-sustainability condition. The condition states that the government primary surplus―the excess of government revenues over noninterest spending—must be at least as large as the stock of outstanding sovereign debt times the difference between the nominal interest rate the government has to pay and the rate of growth of nominal GDP. If it is not, then the ratio of debt to GDP will explode….

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Debt, Great Recession and the Awful Recovery

Debt has been reviled at least since biblical times, frequently for reasons of class (“The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” Proverbs 22:7). In their new book, House of Debt, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi portray the income and wealth differences between borrowers and lenders as the key to the Great Recession and the Awful Recovery (our term). If, as they argue, the “debt overhang” story trumps the now-conventional narrative of a financial crisis-driven economic collapse, policymakers will also need to revise the tools they use to combat such deep slumps...
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