Tag Archives: stimulus

Recession for Beginners

(For the complete set of Beginners articles, see the Financial Crisis for Beginners page.)

So, it looks like we’re in a recession. What’s a recession?

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Financial Crises and Democracy, Part Two

We have several times emphasized the need for a large economic stimulus package to limit the extent and damage of the recession that we are almost certainly in already – a need recognized by economists from Nouriel Roubini to Larry Summers to Martin Feldstein. More recently, I speculated on the relationship between democratic politics and economic policy in a time of crisis. Well, as just about everyone in the world knows, things are coming to a head.

Whether we get a large economic stimulus package in the US – the economy whose health affects, for better or worse, just about everyone in the world – could very well depend on who is elected on Tuesday. For a summary of their short-term economic proposals, see here.

If Barack Obama is elected, we are likely to see a large stimulus package. It would probably include the measures that many economists are favoring, including extended unemployment benefits (and suspension of tax on those benefits), immediate cash aid to state governments, increased home heating cost aid, and infrastructure spending. These measures will have a direct impact on the economy by increasing spending now, while increasing it in ways that are necessary (keeping poor people alive) or that are productive long-term investments (infrastructure). Some of his other suggestions will have a more limited impact on the economy, such as a cash tax rebate, or are more or less irrelevant to the economy, such as relaxing the minimum distribution requirements for retirees.

With John McCain, we are not likely to see a stimulus package – or, more accurately, the package we see will be built around tax cuts that are not likely to have a direct economic impact. His proposals include: reducing taxes on retirement account withdrawals; increasing capital loss write-offs; reducing long-term capital gains tax rates; exempting unemployment benefits from taxes; also relaxing minimum distribution requirements; extending all of the Bush tax cuts; and reducing corporate tax rates. Except for the tax cut on unemployment benefits, these proposals suffer from the basic problem that undermined the last stimulus package this spring: in tough economic times, people take their tax rebates (or tax cuts, or cash you give them in any form) and stuff it under their mattresses, or pay down debt. McCain’s plan also includes the famous (or infamous) proposal for the government to buy up and refinance mortgages directly. (Obama favors increased loan modifications and legislation to eliminate some of the legal barriers to modifications.) But while that could potentially help homeowners and lenders, it doesn’t increase economic activity any.

(For an explanation of why different programs have different marginal impacts on GDP, see Menzie Chinn’s post.)

That said, given the way legislation is passed in Washington, the final package is likely to differ from either person’s proposals, whoever is elected. But the next major step that our government takes to combat the financial and economic crisis will depend directly on the outcome of Tuesday’s election.

Martin Feldstein: Stimulus Should Be Big

Conservative economist and deficit hawk Martin Feldstein is arguing that we need an economic stimulus package now (immediately after the election) that is big ($100 billion won’t cut it) and long. OK, he didn’t explicitly say it should be long, but he did say this:

Previous attempts to use government spending to stimulate an economic recovery, particularly spending on infrastructure, have not been successful because of long legislative lags that delayed the spending until a recovery was well underway. But while past recessions lasted an average of only about 12 months, this downturn is likely to last much longer, providing the scope for successful countercyclical spending.

This is basically what we said in the National Journal and what Simon said in this morning’s testimony. I’m not claiming that Feldstein listens to what we say (I strongly doubt it). But his op-ed emphasizes the fact that most economists from across the political spectrum are on the same page on this issue.

Update: Business executives and Republicans” are on board, too.

Testimony Before Joint Economic Committee, Today

Here is the written testimony I submitted to the JEC.  In my verbal presentation this morning (5 minutes only, strictly enforced) I stressed the following.

1. The global economy is slowing fast, and likely faces an unprecedented (since 1945) recesssion.  The pressures on emerging markets are intense, and inflexibility in Europe in both policy (Eurozone, I’m talking about you) and labor markets (for almost all the European Union) creates serious macroeconomic vulnerability at this stage.

2. In the US, significant (OK, also unprecedented) countercyclical policies have now been put in place.  In particular, the Fed is running through its anti-deflation playbook (which Mr Bernanke was kind enough to publish back in 2002).  We have no idea how to properly measure the scale, let alone the impact, of this increase in: liquidity, contingent liabilities, actual or potential direct lending to almost everyone in the US, and, via unlimited swap lines to some central banks and new $30 billion swap lines to four emerging markets, to many institutions around the world.

3. So deciding what to do with fiscal policy is very hard.  In other industrialized countries, you can rely on “automatic stabilizers” to a greater degree than in the U.S., meaning that their government spending (and deficit) increases in recession because unemployment benefits and the like are more generous.  In the U.S., we have to make a conscious decision.  And that decision needs to be made soon, within a month or so, because any fiscal stimulus works only with a time lag – and the more you want to do things that definitely raised GDP (like infrastructure), the longer the time lag.

So my recommendation is… (well, read the testimony; the numbers are on the first page; detailed recommendations follow on how to spend, for both immediate impact and longer-term benefits).

Comments welcome – there is still a long way to go, in terms of legislation design and implementation.

Update: If you want to see the actual session courtesy of C-SPAN, go here. (Note there were 8 speakers and the session was two hours long.)

Economic Stimulus Proposals: The Data, Please

Economic stimulus is in the air. (Simon, in fact, is testifying on the subject before the Joint Economic Committee later this week.) Menzie Chinn at Econbrowser has a data-heavy post today on multipliers – the impact on GDP of in different types of stimulus (tax rebates, tax cuts, unemployment benefits, etc.). He concludes that the stimulus should include extended unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments, and infrastructure spending. To the counterargument that infrastructure spending takes too long to have an impact, he shows multiple GDP forecasts, all tending to show a protracted recession (and, note, getting worse with each update). If you read one article about the stimulus, read this one.

(Like Simon argued in the National Journal, but with more data.)

Economic Stimulus and Investing for the Long Term

With recession news getting worse every day (here’s one depressing roundup), there is a high likelihood that the Congress will pass an economic stimulus plan either in a lame-duck session in November or immediately after reconvening in January. General sentiment seems to be against tax rebate checks (Martin Feldstein summarizes the argument that the vast majority of the rebates went into savings, not consumption) and in favor of fast-acting measures like extended unemployment benefits and direct aid to state and local governments to replace lost tax revenues. In addition, however, we (and Larry Summers) think that now is the time to invest in long-term economic productivity, for example through infrastructure projects, in part because we are probably looking at a long recession. Our thoughts are presented under Simon’s name and picture on the National Journal’s Economy Blog, which is hosting a discussion of the stimulus package. Note that even the participant from the American Enterprise Institute favors a stimulus package of between $300 and $500 billion.

So Much Going on …

One of the challenges of the current financial crisis/credit crunch/recession/whatever you call the mess that we’re in is that there are so many things going on at once – stabilizing the financial system, housing, economic stimulus, regulation, emerging markets crisis, now incipient currency crisis, … Luckily, there are many other smart commentators out there working weekends when we all should be spending more time with our families.

On the topic of regulation and economic stimulus, Mark Thoma cites and expands on Larry Summers, who argues that we need to not just give the economy a boost in the short term, but take advantage of the opportunity to take steps – both investments and regulation – to boost productivity in the long term.

Mark Thoma (again) and Yves Smith both provide roundups and analysis of the currency crisis, which Simon raised a couple of days ago. Quick summary: it could be bad.

So if you can’t sleep, there’s plenty to read and worry about. (Or you could watch the World Series.)