Fiscal stimulus: More needed?

The House has passed HR1 and the Senate is working on a counterpart fiscal stimulus bill. We will discuss HR1 for the sake of specificity and in the belief that the final law will be fairly similar to HR1.

The table below shows the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of the spending increases and tax cuts under HR1. The government’s fiscal year ends on September 30, so the first period is the 8 months from now until the end of September. One of the major concerns about the program is the lag in ramping up the stimulus. Recall that the economy will be about $900 billion below trend in the middle of the year, but spending programs up to then will only pay out $107 billion and taxes will have been cut by $63 billion. The stimulus is much larger in the following 12 months, starting in the fall of this year, when spending will be up by $236 billion and taxes cut by $120 billion. Then in the following fiscal year, 2010 to 2011, the stimulus falls to roughly half its peak level. Effects in later years are tiny.


The spending increases under HR1 are wonderfully diversified. We had been concerned that the program would involve large amounts of spending in certain favored, narrow areas, and that the supply of the corresponding products would have bottlenecks. In that case, the direct employment effects would be smaller and the spending would have driven up the incomes of some lucky workers. But in 2009 and 2010, broadband gets only $250 million, school building repairs $9 billion, and health information technology $500 million, to mention three areas that the new administration had been singling out earlier as especially suitable. Though the spending side of the program has been widely criticized as diffuse, we see that characteristic as a virtue.

The biggest piece of the tax side of the program is a conventional tax rebate, similar to the one in the summer of 2008. Because it would be refundable-that is, it could result in a taxpayer receiving money back rather than paying less tax-the government accounts for it partly as spending (the refunds) and partly as reduced taxes. The total amount is $144 billion for 2009 and 2010. On the business side, speeding up depreciation and allowing earlier recovery of tax benefits from operating losses would result in a drop in tax collections of $90 billion, to be made up with higher collections in subsequent years-this is an interest-free loan program more than a tax cuts.

Effects of fiscal stimulus

How much does real GDP respond to the two forms of fiscal stimulus, government purchases and tax cuts? The incoming Obama administration released the Romer-Bernstein study of fiscal stimulus to answer the question. The table below shows the main conclusions. When the government increases its purchases of output, say concrete for new bridge, GDP rises immediately by about the amount of the purchase (1.05 in the first quarter) and then rises to about 1.6 times the amount of the purchases. The calculation assumes that the flow of purchases remains higher for the whole 16-quarter period shown in the table. For tax cuts or other programs that give families more purchasing power, the immediate response is more like half the amount the government spends; the other half goes into savings. In both cases, the multipliers rise as time passes because of follow-on effects-increased spending by those influenced by the immediate effects.


 Fiscal Multiplier Estimates from the Romer-Bernstein study of fiscal stimulus

The measurement of these multiplier effects is intensely controversial. Having followed this area of macroeconomics carefully for many years, we believe that both columns overstate the responses somewhat, especially in the case of tax cuts. All macro models agree that increases in government purchases increase real GDP. That multiplier is probably around one, we believe, but we would not rule out 1.5. Most macro models place the tax-cut multiplier quite a bit lower, and we agree. Here we are referring to tax cuts that hand families more purchasing power, such as the one n the summer of 2008. Later we discuss tax changes that give focused incentives for immediate spending, where the effect could be much larger.

Last summer, consumers enjoyed a moderate tax cut paid out to most people as an immediate rebate. The experience demonstrated that the federal government is capable of a speedy fiscal action, but it also showed that consumers don’t go out and spend rebate money when they receive it. Instead, just as the received theory of consumption predicts, consumers smooth the spending increase, reserving most of it for future consumption, by saving it or using it to pay down debt. It raises their standard of living more than their immediate spending. It’s good news that most Americans do not have their backs to the wall financially, but it makes an income- tax rebate ineffective as a stimulus concentrated at the time most needed. Rather, rebates result in consumption increases spread well into the future. We discussed John Taylor’s graphic analysis of the tdax cut in an earlier post.

Effect of Government Purchases

HR1’s focus on government purchases raises the natural question of the effect of purchases on total GDP. Does government spending stimulate other categories of spending, especially consumer spending? Or does government spending displace other categories, so GDP rises by less than the amount the government spends? What does research say about the left column in the table above? An earlier post addressed this question.

What could have been done

The most desirable time-concentrated stimulus would raise consumer spending during 2009 without changing it much in future years. The government lacks the power to compel consumers to spend more, so it must rely on a incentives. Britain has just cut its sales tax (VAT) by 2.5 percentage points for the next 13 months to provide a small incentive concentrated in the period when the recession is expected to be most severe.

An important article in the American Economic Review in September 1986 by James Poterba, Julio Rotemberg, and Lawrence Summers demonstrated the high potency of a sales-tax cut as a stimulus. They studied the reverse situation, where a big increase in the British sales tax caused a severe recession.

Because the U.S. lacks a national sales tax or VAT, the logistics of a temporary consumption subsidy would be a little more complicated. The Kotlikoff-Leamer proposal would operate through state sales taxes. All but a few small states have sales taxes-the exceptions are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon. Under the plan, the federal government would buy out sales taxes for the period of the needed stimulus, say the year 2009. The states without sales taxes or with low sales taxes would receive comparable federal funds to cut other types of taxes. Sales tax revenue is currently $440 billion per year, so the proposal would cost around half of what the Obama administration appears to be planning to spend on stimulus.

The plan needs to take effect soon after it is announced. The announcement will cause consumers to defer purchases until the tax cut takes effect. Similarly, toward the end, they will accelerate purchases and then buy less after the sales tax resumes. Phasing in the resumption might be a good idea.

Critics of consumer subsidies point out that some consumer goods are imported, so the stimulus benefits the producing country, not the U.S. Often that country is said to be China, though Japan is also a major source because of its dominance of the world car market. Given that the U.S. has pledged to engage in joint stimulus with its major trading partners, including China, the stimulus to the import source countries is entirely appropriate. But imports of consumer goods are only 18 percent of consumer spending on goods (excluding services), so the leakage into import stimulus is not a major consideration anyway.

We feel that a temporary elimination or reduction in sales taxes would be an effective stimulus to consumer spending, concentrated in the period when it is needed most and phased out later. It should be part of the stimulus plan.

Tax cuts to reduce the cost of labor or improve incentives to work

If the objective of a stimulus is to lift employment, why not operate directly on that margin, by improving incentives? The Senate is considering a program called Making Work Pay (see the Brookings Institution evaluation) as part of its version of the stimulus bill. This program would buy out the first $500 of the payroll tax that all workers have to pay, even those who do not pay income tax. This program has a definite effect on the incentive to work for those without jobs and for those who are currently paying less than $500 in payroll tax (those earning less than about $8,000 per year), but for most workers, the $500 would be just like a standard tax cut, without any special incentive effect.

In a standard supply-and-demand diagram, with the pre-tax wage on the vertical axis, giving an improved incentive to workers shifts the supply curve to the right-people are willing to work more hours at a given pre-tax wage because the tax that they used to pay has been removed, the equivalent of an increase in the wage.  The market clears at a point down the demand curve, with higher employment. That is the hope of a plan to cut the wage tax paid by workers. Notice that the pre-tax wage as to fall to stimulate demand. If the wage is sticky, nothing happens-workers would like work harder, but that message does not get passed on to employers through a lower pre-tax wage. Thus another reason that Making Work Pay may not stimulate much job-creation is that the needed decline in pre-tax wages won’t occur.

Why not overcome this problem by giving the incentive to the employer? The federal government has a completely straightforward way to do this, because it levies a 7.65 percent rate on employer payrolls for virtually all employment. The tax yields just under $500 billion per year. Elimination of the tax for the year 2009 would provide a substantial incentive to employment concentrated during the year. As with the temporary removal of sales taxes, both anticipation effects and ending effects would occur. See the Bils-Klenow proposal.

One problem with the employment stimulus is that the funds go in the first instance to the owners of businesses and not to consumers generally. Ownership is highly concentrated in the U.S., so the distribution of the immediate benefits is skewed. By contrast, a worker or consumer rebate can be directed to lower-income consumers because it is part of the income tax.

If the response of employment to the payroll tax cut were strong enough, its contribution to the incomes of workers might be enough to overcome the disadvantage of its business-subsidy character. If business hiring responded aggressively to the subsidy, profits would decline as business put more output on the market and the winners would be workers rather than owners. Everything turns on the strength of the employment effect. But, alas, the strength of the effect depends on one of the most unsettled issues in macroeconomics, the role of supply increases in raising the quantity of output produced in the short run. One line of thought treats this issue just as one would in a standard market, where an increase in supply raises the quantity sold by the principles of the standard supply-and-demand diagram of elementary economics. Another line believes that special principles operate in the short run that makes demand the controlling factor-an increase in supply has little effect on the quantity sold in the short run in this view. We are among the few economists who regard this issue as still open. Most are doctrinaire believers in one or the other view. We are sufficiently concerned about the potential validity of the demand-limiting view that we are reluctant to state with confidence that a supply-based stimulus such as the payroll-tax suspension would have a large effect on employment.

Will the economy need more stimulus after the current program goes into effect?

The answer seems obviously yes. Current forecasts were made with pretty good knowledge of the nature and magnitude of the Obama stimulus program and they say that the economy will be in deep recession through the middle of the year and below trend with excess unemployment for several more years. Further, from Tables 2 and 3, it is clear that the increases in purchases and increases in consumer purchasing power from the program, after applying the Romer-Bernstein multipliers, would have effects quite small in relation to the GDP shortfall of close to a trillion dollars a year.

Conclusions on stimulus

We foresee a mixture of stimulus policies for the coming year. Monetary policy can contribute by driving down mortgage and other interest rates. Income-tax rebates seem to have little support and would probably have relatively small effects within the year, with undesirable continuing effects in later years. We are enthusiastic about removing sales taxes and then brining them back gradually, to stimulate immediate consumptions spending. We are not sure that an employment stimulus from a reduced business payroll tax would raise employment enough to be a contender as a stimulus. Thus the sales-tax buyout seems to be the best way to spend the bulk of future stimulus dollars.

Originally published at Woodward & Hall weblog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to "Fiscal stimulus: More needed?"

  1. Guest   February 1, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Yes, but when the amount of bad debt to be taken into account is $70 trillion, and last year’s GDP was $55 trillion, aren’t you living in a complete idiot’s dreamworld? Sounds to me like you’re overpaid. You should be fired–then tell me what’s going on.