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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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November 13, 2012

(Fiscal) Cliff Notes

Since it is indisputably the policy question of the moment, here are a few of my own observations regarding the "fiscal cliff." Throughout, I will rely on the analysis of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as reported in the CBO reports titled An Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022 and Economic Effects of Policies Contributing to Fiscal Tightening in 2013.

Since the CBO analysis and definitions of the fiscal cliff are familiar to many, I will forgo a rehash of the details. However, in case you haven't been following the conversation closely or are in the mood for a refresher, you can go here first for a quick summary. This "appendix" also includes a description of the CBO's alternative scenario, which amounts to renewing most expiring tax provisions and rescinding the automatic budget cuts to be implemented under the provisions of last year's debt-ceiling extension.

On, then, to a few facts about the fiscal cliff scenario that have caught my attention.

1. Going over the cliff would put the federal budget on the path to sustainability.

If reducing the level of federal debt relative to gross domestic (GDP) is your goal, the fiscal cliff would indeed do the trick. According to the CBO:

Budget deficits are projected to continue to shrink for several years—to 2.4 percent of GDP in 2014 and 0.4 percent by 2018—before rising again to 0.9 percent by 2022. With deficits small relative to the size of the economy, debt held by the public is also projected to drop relative to GDP—from about 77 percent in 2014 to about 58 percent in 2022. Even with that decline, however, debt would represent a larger share of GDP in 2022 than in any year between 1955 and 2009.

Such would not be the case should the status quo of the CBO's alternative scenario prevail. Under (more or less) status quo policy, the debt-to-GDP ratio would rise to a hair under 90 percent by 2022:


The current debt-to-GDP ratio of 67 percent is already nearly double the 2007 level, which checked in at about 36 percent. However, though the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio over the past five years is smaller in percentage terms, a jump to 90 percent from where we are today may be more problematic. There is some evidence of "threshold effects" that associate negative effects on growth with debt levels that exceed a critical upper bound relative to the size of the economy. At the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City's 2011 Economic Symposium, Steve Cecchetti offered the following observation, based on his research with M.S. Mohanty and Fabrizio Zampolli:

Using a new dataset on debt levels in 18 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries from 1980 to 2010 (based primarily on flow of funds data), we examine the impact of debt on economic growth....

Our results support the view that, beyond a certain level, debt is bad for growth. For government debt, the number is about 85 percent of GDP.

Of course, causation is always a tricky thing to establish, and Cecchetti et al. are clear that their estimates are subject to considerable uncertainty. Still, it is clear that the fiscal cliff moves the level of debt in the right direction. The status quo does not.

2. The fiscal cliff moves in the direction of budget balance really fast.

By the CBO's estimates, over the next three years the fiscal cliff would reduce deficits relative to GDP by about 6 percentage points, from the current ratio of 7.3 percent to the projected 2015 level of 1.2 percent.

Deficit reduction of this magnitude is not unprecedented. A comparable decline occurred in the 1990s, when the federal budget moved from deficits that were 4.7 percent of GDP to a surplus equal to 1.4 percent of GDP. However, that 6 percentage point change in deficits relative to GDP happened over an eight-year span, from 1992 to 1999.

It is probably also worth noting that the average annual rate of GDP growth over the 1993–99 period was 4 percent. The CBO projects real growth rates over the next three years at 2.7 percent, which incorporates two years of growth in excess of 4 percent following negative growth in 2013.

The upshot is that, though the fiscal cliff would move the federal budget in the right direction vis à vis sustainability, it does so at an extremely rapid pace. I'm not sure speed kills in this case, but it sounds pretty risky.

3. The fiscal cliff heavily weights deficit reduction in the direction of higher taxation.

Over the first five years off the cliff, almost three-quarters of the deficit reduction relative to the CBO's no-cliff alternative would be accounted for by revenue increases. Only 28 percent would be a result of lower outlays:


The balance shifts only slightly over the full 10-year horizon of the CBO projections, with outlays increasing to 34 percent of the total and revenues falling to 66 percent.

Particularly for the nearer-term horizon, there is at least some evidence that this revenue/outlay mix may not be optimal. A few months back, Greg Mankiw highlighted this, from new research by Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero, and Francesco Giavazzi:

This paper studies whether fiscal corrections cause large output losses. We find that it matters crucially how the fiscal correction occurs. Adjustments based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of output losses than tax-based ones. Spending-based adjustments have been associated with mild and short-lived recessions, in many cases with no recession at all. Tax-based adjustments have been associated with prolonged and deep recessions.

Of course, that in the end is a relatively short-run impact. It does not directly confront the growth aspects of the policy mix associated with fiscal reform. Controversy on the growth-maximizing size of government and the best growth-supporting mix of spending and tax policies is longstanding. The dustup on a Congressional Research Services report questioning the relationship between top marginal tax rates and growth is but a recent installment of this debate.

Here's what I think we know, in theory anyway: Government spending can be growth-enhancing. Tax increases can be growth-retarding. It's all about the tradeoffs, the details matter, and unqualified statements about the "right" thing to do should be treated with suspicion. (If you are an advanced student of economics or otherwise tolerant of a bit of a math slog, you can find an excellent summary of the whole issue here.)

In other words, there are lots of decisions to be made—and it would probably be better if those decisions are not made by default.

Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

 


September 1, 2011

The pull between spending and saving

In a speech on Wednesday, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart talked about how the economic outlook is being shaped by the process of deleveraging (reducing debt and increasing saving) that is occurring in the economy.

By way of background, President Lockhart emphasized the important role that some amount of debt plays in economic growth: while difficult to measure precisely, research suggests that debt levels that get high enough are associated with extended periods of subpar economic growth.

"Debt is not in and of itself a bad thing. Debt supports economic growth by allowing households, businesses, and governments to smooth their spending and investment over time. Borrowing and lending can help facilitate the allocation of capital to productive uses in the economy. But high debt levels can also result in lower economic growth, a point that Stephen Cecchetti, of the Bank for International Settlements, made in a paper presented at the Kansas City Fed's symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo., last week."

Relative to the 1990s, the last decade witnessed a surge in borrowing by the nonfinancial sector (comprising households, nonfinancial businesses and governments). Indeed, as President Lockhart noted:

"Relative to the size of the U.S. economy measured in terms of GDP, the total domestic debt of nonfinancial sectors of the economy reached 248 percent in 2009, increasing by almost 75 percentage points over the previous decade alone."

While no longer growing, the overall debt position of the nonfinancial sector has barely declined since peaking in 2009.


How did we get to this point? Much of the increase in total debt during the 2000s was in the form of real estate debt, and most of that was by households and unincorporated businesses (mostly sole proprietorships and partnerships). During the 1990s the mortgage debt of households was relatively stable at around 45 percent of GDP, but it increased to a peak of 76 percent of GDP in 2009. Over the same period, mortgage debt for unincorporated businesses increased from around 12 percent of GDP to almost 20 percent.



Because real estate is relatively expensive, it is not surprising that mortgage debt heavily influences the overall debt burden of individuals. Rapidly rising home values from the late 1990s to 2006 supported the notion that housing was a good asset to purchase…until it wasn't. According to the S&P Case-Shiller national home price index, home values have declined by more than 30 percent from their peak in 2006, after having increased by more than 150 percent compared with the previous decade.


From their peak in 2009, debt levels for households and unincorporated businesses have declined relative to GDP notably by a combined 15 percentage points. Reduced mortgage debt accounted for three quarters of that decline. As President Lockhart notes, repairing the balance sheet of the household sector, just as it does for businesses, can occur through some combination of debt reduction and increased savings.

"Household deleveraging has occurred mostly through a combination of increased savings, debt repayment, and also debt forgiveness. At the same time, there has generally been less access to credit for households as a result of stricter underwriting standards. The inability to qualify for home equity loans and other forms of credit has slowed the pace at which new debt is taken on by households replacing paid-down debt. The effect is to reduce their debt burden over time."

In contrast to households and unincorporated businesses, the amount of debt owed by the nonfinancial corporate sector has not declined very much since 2009. Nonfinancial corporations increased borrowing during the second half of the 2000s. But most of the debt growth was from increased issuance of corporate bonds. Since its historical peak in 2009, the total debt of the nonfinancial corporate sector has remained at around 50 percent of GDP, as continued bond issuance has largely offset declines in other types of corporate borrowing.

If individuals are aggressively reducing their debt burden, and corporations haven't increased their overall borrowing, why hasn't the overall debt burden of the nonfinancial sector of the economy declined since 2009? The primary reason is that the amount of federal government debt has increased sharply in recent years—from 35 percent of GDP in 2007 to about 65 percent of GDP in early 2011.


As President Lockhart observes:

"While the private sector—households and businesses—has made notable progress in lowering its debt burden, discussions of how to reduce public debt have only just begun. The government still needs to introduce major policy changes to put public debt on a sustainable path. Demographic trends, which I referenced earlier, will make public debt reduction even more challenging."

How long will the deleveraging process take to play out? I'm pretty confident that nobody really knows precisely, but President Lockhart suggests that we may be closer to the beginning of the process than the end:

"Rebalancing simply takes time. A 2010 report by McKinsey surveyed 32 international periods of deleveraging following financial crises and found that, on average, the duration of these episodes was about six and a half years. U.S. debt to GDP peaked in the first quarter of 2009. So, by that standard we are much closer to the beginning than the end of our deleveraging process."

Lockhart also makes the point that this necessary structural adjustment has consequences for the medium-term outlook:

"When economies are deleveraging they cannot grow as rapidly as they might otherwise. It is obvious as consumers reduce spending they divert more of their incomes to paying off debt. This shift in consumer behavior increases the amount of capital available for financing investment. But higher rates of business investment are not likely to fully offset weakness in consumer spending for some time, as businesses continue to grapple with uncertainties about the future."

From a monetary policy perspective, slower growth as a result of deleveraging raises important challenges:

"To my mind, it's becoming increasingly clear the challenge we policymakers face is balancing appropriate policy responses for the near to medium term with what's needed for the longer term. In other words, we must continue to help the economy achieve a healthy enough cyclical recovery, especially with unemployment high and consumer spending lackluster. At the same time, we must recognize the longer-term need for directionally opposite structural adjustments, including deleveraging."

How does President Lockhart size up the role of monetary policy in this context?

"Given the weak data we've seen recently and considering the rising concern about chronic slow growth or worse, I don't think any policy option can be ruled out at the moment. However, it is important that monetary policy not be seen as a panacea. The kinds of structural adjustments I've been discussing today take time, and I am acutely aware that pushing beyond what monetary policy can plausibly deliver runs the risk of creating new distortions and imbalances.

"We may find, as economic circumstances evolve, that policy adjustments are required. In more adverse scenarios, further policy accommodation might be called for. But as of today, I am comfortable with the current stance of policy, especially considering the tensions policy must navigate between the short and long term and between recovery and the need for longer-term structural adjustments."

John Robertson By John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

 

April 18, 2011

Can Keynesians be anti-Keynesian?

Follow any policy debate, and you are sure to find a list of economists who support or inspire those on both sides of the issue. In The Economist, we find some of those on the roster for the new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, and why:

"When Republicans proposed slashing billions of dollars from federal spending this year, Democrats circulated predictions by economists that jobs and growth would be hit. John Boehner, the Republican speaker in the House of Representatives, countered with an economic expert of his own: John Taylor of Stanford University. 'Nothing could be more contrary to basic economics, experience and facts,' Mr. Taylor asserted on his blog, which Mr. Boehner cited. By cutting government spending, he said, the Republicans would 'crowd in' private investment and create jobs.

"… if there is one ideology that unites today's Republicans, it is Keynesianism, whose nefarious influence they are determined to stamp out. 'Young Guns,' the book-sized manifesto of Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, leading Republican House members, devotes several pages to the evils of Keynesian activism and its exponents in the administration."

One of the interesting things about the article is that among the economists cited as being among the critics of "Keynesianism," you find the names John Taylor, Robert Mundell, and Kenneth Rogoff. I find that list interesting because if you follow the links I attached to those names you will find work with models that are decidedly Keynesian in structure. Works by Taylor and Rogoff are, in fact, seminal contributions to the "New Keynesian" paradigm that dominates macroeconomics today.

As far as I know, none of these men have repudiated the basic worldview that motivates the referenced work. In fact, as recently as last year John Taylor approvingly described, as he has many times, a key characteristic of the paradigm for monetary policy that was in place the decades before the financial crisis:

"… the central bank has a strategy, or rule, to adjust the interest rate depending on economic conditions: In general, the interest rate rises by a certain amount when inflation increases above its target and the interest rate falls when by a certain amount when the economy goes into a recession."

I added the emphasis to the last part of that passage as it is a feature of the so-called Taylor rule that is entirely built on the foundation of the New Keynesian model.

How, then, to explain the Keynesian predilections of the economists mentioned as presumed carriers of the anti-Keynesian mantle? The source of the confusion, I think, goes back to the historical, but somewhat obsolete, distinction between so-called Keynesianism and monetarism. The latter was, of course, personified in Milton Friedman and his dispute with what was the orthodoxy in the three decades following the Great Depression. Lost in the early-days labeling, however, was the fact that the disputes were more about the empirical details of theory rather than the theory itself.

In particular, Friedman did not deny the effectiveness of policy in principle but rather its wisdom or impact in practice. This sentiment is exactly the one he expressed in his prescient and transformative 1968 presidential address to the American Economics Association:

"In the United States the revival of belief in the potency of monetary policy was strengthened also by the increasing disillusionment with fiscal policy, not so much by its potential to increase aggregate demand as with the practical and political feasibility of so using it."

In a recent essay on Friedman's views about the ineffectiveness of fiscal policy, Tim Congdon notes Friedman's views on the issue:

"Friedman offered two informal theoretical arguments for the virtual irrelevance of fiscal policy, as he saw it. The second was that fiscal policy is much harder to adjust in a sensitive short-term way than monetary policy. But the first was the more telling and deserves detailed discussion.… In Friedman's words, 'I believe it to be true… that the Keynesian view that a government deficit is stimulating is simply wrong.' The explanation was the wider effects of the way the budget deficit is financed. To quote again, 'A deficit is not stimulating because it has to be financed, and the negative effects of financing it counterbalance the positive effects, if there are any, on spending.' "

Though Congdon emphasizes different channels (associated with the mix of monetary and fiscal policy associated with deficit spending), those who follow such things may recognize in Friedman's remarks the notion of Ricardian equivalence:

"This is the idea that increased government borrowing may have no impact on consumer spending because consumers predict tax cuts or higher spending will lead to future tax increases to pay back the debt.

"If this theory is true, it would mean a tax cut financed by higher borrowing would have no impact on increasing aggregate demand because consumers would save the tax cut to pay the future tax increases."

My point is not to dispute or defend the truth of the Ricardian proposition. My point is that it has absolutely nothing to do with whether one believes (or does not believe) that the New Keynesian framework is the right way to view the world. The essential policy implications of the New Keynesian idea (like the old Keynesian idea) is that changes in gross domestic product can be driven by changes in desired spending by households, businesses, foreigners, and the government in sum. You can believe that and still believe in fiscal policy ineffectiveness, as long as you believe that total spending is unaltered by a particular policy intervention.

There are, of course, plenty of arguments against fiscal policy activism that do not require adherence to Ricardian equivalence, in total or in part. The most obvious would be the position that any short-term rush from stimulative policies is more than reversed in the long run by the negative consequences of higher tax rates on productive activity, or the redirection of private investment to lower return public spending. Again, the point is that a self-professed adherent to a Keynesian reality need suffer no doubts about the coherence of his or her intellectual framework if he or she objects to fiscal policies aimed at juicing the economy through greater government spending.

This whole discussion may seem like a bit of inside baseball, and perhaps it is. But the stakes in this debate are high, as clearly illustrated by today's announcement from rating agency Standard & Poor's that it reduced its outlook to negative on the triple-A credit rating of the United States. In my view, productive discussions about the truly pressing issues of our day are unlikely unless we understand where the disagreements lie—and where they do not.

Photo of Dave Altig By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed



November 23, 2010

Federal Reserve policies focused

This blog posting was originally an article in the Sunday, November 21, edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The article was written by Atlanta Fed Senior Vice President and Research Director David Altig.

On Nov. 3, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)—the group within the Federal Reserve charged with formulating monetary policy for the United States—announced its plans to purchase, over the course of the next eight months, up to $600 billion worth of longer-term Treasury securities.

In many circles (maybe including yours), this decision has generated some controversy. A good deal of the controversy revolves around the view that this monetary policy decision is aimed at buying up government debt for the purpose of making it easier for the country to continue on the path of deficit spending. This view is inaccurate.

I understand the concerns that are triggered when the Fed announces a significant Treasury purchase program at a time when the fiscal situation is so challenging and unsettled. Be it the hyperinflations of Germany's Weimar Republic in the period between the two world wars; Hungary after World War II; or the more recent case of Zimbabwe, most of us have heard or read of extreme examples of countries that ended up creating big problems trying to finance government by printing money.

Generating government revenues via the printing press is a policy that is often referred to as "monetizing the debt." I think the emphasis in that sentence should be on the word policy. A policy is really a sort of rule—sometimes explicit, sometimes only implicit—that lays out a decision maker's objectives and how they are going to be attained. The objective of a policy of monetizing the debt is to create inflation as a means of lowering the burden of government debt by lowering the value of the debt and interest the government must repay in inflation-adjusted terms.

Monetizing debt is decidedly not the current policy of the Federal Reserve, at least not according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Speaking at a recent conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Chairman Bernanke was unequivocal: "We are not in the business of trying to create inflation."

So what business is the Fed in?

In short, the Fed's so-called dual mandate charges the FOMC with promoting sustainable growth and low and stable inflation. Though the economy is moving forward, it is doing so at a pace that is only slowly yielding job growth. This forward momentum has not yet proved robust or sustained enough to dent the unemployment rate.

More important, the economic landscape at the end of the summer was colored by the continuation of a declining inflation trend that was bleeding into expectations about the probability of deflation. In a still-recovering economy with very low interest rates, the emergence of deflation expectations would be a most unwelcome development that could seriously impede the prospect for continued recovery.

As Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart has said, stabilizing inflation expectations is a key to policy success, and "managing inflation expectations requires following through with policy actions consistent with stated objectives—in this case ensuring that inflation trends remain in a desired zone. The FOMC's November decision should be seen in that light."

The policy represented by the November decision appears to be working. As markets came to expect the November announcement, price expectations that had been declining all summer began to stabilize and have now returned to pre-summer levels.

Could the policy be too successful? That is, there a risk that the policy will overshoot and replace declining inflation rates with too-high inflation rates?

There are, of course, always risks to action and inaction. Now that the FOMC's action has apparently mitigated the risk of a recovery-threatening disinflationary spiral, at some point it will be appropriate to turn attention to inflation risks. As President Lockhart recently commented, we at the Atlanta Fed are confident these decisions will be made independent of fiscal considerations.

The current focus is on rising commodity prices, and the Federal Reserve, including the Atlanta Fed, is watching those developments too.

As one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks charged with bringing a real-time sense of the economy to the monetary policy process, the Atlanta Fed queries hundreds of contacts every month. In general, our contacts, while acknowledging some rising cost pressures, do not indicate they are likely to respond with price hikes of their own.

But we will keep asking, watching for signs that things are changing, and preparing in the event that a change in course is warranted.

And this vigilance is precisely the point. Intentions do matter, and President Lockhart has made his very clear: "Rest assured, should inflation begin to move above desired levels, I am confident the FOMC will work hard to keep it from getting away from us."

By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed