Fiscal policy

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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Inflation risks and inflation expectations

U.S. inflation has been low and steady for three decades. This welcome stability is not merely a consequence of good fortune. Shocks that in the past might led to higher trend inflation—like the energy price increases—continue to buffet the economy much as they did in the 1970s and 1980s, when inflation rose to a peacetime record. Rather, it reflects the improved monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, which began acting as an inflation-targeting central bank in the mid-1980s, long before it announced a 2% target for inflation in 2012. As a consequence of the Fed’s sustained efforts, long-run inflation expectations have remained close to 2% for more than 20 years. One result is that temporary disturbances that drive inflation above or below target quickly fade.

This is the optimistic conclusion of the 2017 U.S. Monetary Policy Forum (USMPF) report. Since the adoption of the de facto inflation-targeting regime, one-off shocks have little impact on the inflation trend. Moreover, as many have observed, the relationship between unemployment and inflation—the Phillips curve (see our primer)—is now notably weaker. However, the authors of that earlier report warn that the Phillips curve “flattening” could be a direct consequence of the Fed’s success. Furthermore, since the sample period from 1984 to 2016 excludes any sustained period of a very tight economywide labor market, it would not be possible to detect an outsized impact, if any, of persistently low unemployment on inflation.

Enter the 2019 USMPF report, which focuses on the possibility that inflation may indeed respond differently when the unemployment rate is very low and projected to remain low for several years (see, for example the FOMC’s latest Summary of Economic Projections). The logic is straightforward: if labor is very scarce for an extended period, employers will bid up wages and (unless they are prepared to accept declining profits) pass on those cost increases in the form of higher prices….

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Inflation Policy

Inflation in the United States remains at levels that most people don’t really notice. Overall, the consumer price index rose 2.8 percent from May 2017 to May 2018. And, when you look at core measures, the trend is still below 2 percent.

With inflation and inflation expectations still so benign, it is no wonder that despite solid economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years the Federal Open Market Committee continues to act quite gradually (see their June 2018 statement). Inflation could well turn up in the near term—perhaps by more than the policymakers expect. But, for reasons that we will explain, if we were on the FOMC, we would stay the planned course: remain vigilant, but certainly not panic.

We start with a look at the data. What we see is that trend inflation has stayed reasonably close to the Fed’s medium-term target of 2 percent for the past two decades. There have been occasional deviations, like the temporary rise in 2008 and again in 2011, but overall, the path is remarkably stable….

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GDP-linked Bonds: A Primer

Gross government debt in advanced economies has surpassed 105% of GDP, up from less than 75% a decade ago. Some countries with especially large debts—including Greece (177%), Italy (133%) and Portugal (129%)—are viewed not only as a risk to the countries themselves, but to others as well. As a result, policymakers and economists have been looking for ways to make it easier to manage these heavier debt burdens.

One prominent suggestion is that countries should issue GDP-linked bonds that tie the size of debt payments to their economy's well-being. We find this idea attractive, and see the expanding discussion of the viability of GDP-linked bonds both warranted and useful (see here and here). However, the practical issues associated with GDP data revision remain a formidable obstacle to the broad issuance and acceptance of these instruments....

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Thoughts on Proposed Corporate Tax Reform

With a Republican government intent on major changes in fiscal policy, it’s useful to start thinking about the fundamentals of taxing and spending. The analysis below focuses narrowly on the House-proposed tax reform (pages 24-29) for large firms – what is commonly known as the corporate tax.

Let’s start with a few general points regarding objectives and methods. Our primary goal here is to consider how to raise revenues efficiently, not how to spend or distribute them. So, whatever one might believe regarding the desirable scale of the government safety net or the supply of public goods, that is beyond our immediate focus. Instead we ask how to minimize the negative impact of taxes on economic growth for a given revenue target.

Beyond our focus on efficiency, we also consider the distributional impact of a tax....

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A Primer on Helicopter Money

Helicopter money is not monetary policy. It is a fiscal policy carried out with the cooperation of the central bank. That is, if the Fed were to drop $100 bills out of helicopters, it would be doing the Treasury’s bidding.

We are wary of joining the cacophony of commentators on helicopter money, but our sense is that the discussion could use a bit of structure...

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