Opinion

Lawrence Summers

The economics of austerity

Lawrence Summers
Jun 3, 2013 12:45 UTC

Paced by housing and energy, the U.S. recovery is likely to accelerate this year and budget deficit projections have declined as well.  Unfortunately the European economy remains stagnant though there is some evidence that stimulative policies are gaining traction in Japan.  Around the world the idea of “austerity” is fiercely debated.  This all makes a reconsideration of the principles that should guide fiscal policy opportune. This requires recognizing that policies need to be set in light of economic circumstances.

A prudent government must over time seek to balance spending and revenue collection in a way that assures the sustainability of debts. To do otherwise leads to instability and needlessly slow growth and courts default and economic catastrophe. Equally, however, responsible fiscal policy requires recognizing that when economies are weak and movements in interest rates are constrained ‑ as has been the case in much of the industrial world in recent years ‑ changes in fiscal policy will have significant effects on economic activity that in turn will affect revenue collections and social support expenditures. In such circumstances, aggressive efforts to rapidly reduce budget deficits may actually backfire, as a contracting economy offsets any direct benefits.

It is a truism that deficit finance of government activity is not an alternative to tax finance or to supporting one form of spending by cutting back on another. It is only a means of deferring payment for government spending and, of course, because of interest on the debt, increasing the burden on taxpayers. A household or business cannot indefinitely increase its debt relative to its income without becoming insolvent, and neither can a government. There is no viable permanent option of spending without raising commensurate revenue.

It follows that in normal times there is no advantage to deficit policies. Public borrowing does not reduce ultimate tax burdens. It tends to crowd out private borrowing to finance growth and job-creating investment and foster international borrowing, which means an excess of imports over exports. Or the expectation of future tax increases may discourage private spending. While government spending or tax cutting financed by borrowing creates increased demand in the economy, the Federal Reserve can in normal times achieve this objective by adjusting base interest rates.

It was essentially this logic that drove the measures taken in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, usually on a bipartisan basis, to balance the budget. As a consequence of policy steps taken in 1990, 1993 and 1997, it was possible by the year 2000 for the Treasury to use surplus revenue to retire federal debt. Deficit reduction and the associated reduction in capital costs and increase in investment were important contributors to the nation’s strong economic performance during the 1990s, when productivity growth soared and the unemployment rate fell below 4 percent. Essentially, we enjoyed a virtuous circle in which reduced deficits led to lower capital costs and increased confidence, which led to more rapid growth, which further reduced deficits, which reinforced the cycle.

The lessons of Reinhart-Rogoff

Lawrence Summers
May 6, 2013 13:38 UTC

The economics commentariat and no small part of the political debate in recent weeks has been consumed with the controversy surrounding the work of my Harvard colleagues (and friends) Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff (RR). Their work had been widely interpreted as establishing that economic growth was likely to stagnate in a country once its government debt-to-GDP ratio exceeded 90 percent. Scholars at the University of Massachusetts have demonstrated and RR have acknowledged that they made a coding error that resulted in their omitting some relevant data in forming their results and also have noted that using updated data for several countries reduces substantially the strength of some of the statistical patterns they asserted. Issues have also arisen with respect to how RR weighted observations in forming the averages on which they base their conclusions.

Many have said that the questions raised undermine the claims of austerity advocates around the world that deficits should be quickly reduced. Some have gone so far as to blame RR for the unemployment of millions, asserting that they provided crucial intellectual ammunition for austerity policies. Others believe that even after re-analysis the data support the view that deficit and debt burden reduction is important in most of the industrialized world. Still others regard the controversy as calling into question the usefulness of statistical research on economic policy questions.

Where should these debates settle? From the perspective of someone who has done a fair amount of econometric research, consumed such research as a policymaker and participated as an advocate in debates about fiscal stimulus and austerity, here would be my takeaways.

Is America’s democracy broken?

Lawrence Summers
Apr 15, 2013 11:06 UTC

With the release of the president’s budget, Washington has once again descended into partisan squabbling. There is in America today pervasive concern about the basic functioning of our democracy. Congress is viewed less favorably than ever before in the history of public opinion polling. Revulsion at political figures unable to reach agreement on measures that substantially reduce prospective budget deficits is widespread. Pundits and politicians alike condemn gridlock as angry movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party emerge on both sides of the political spectrum, and partisanship seems to become ever more pervasive.

All this comes at a time of great challenge. Profound changes, as emerging economies led by China converge toward the West, will redefine the global order. Beyond the current economic downturn, which is surely the most serious since the Great Depression, lies the even more serious challenge of the rise of technologies that may well raise average productivity but displace large numbers of workers. Public debt is running up in a way that is without precedent except in times of all-out war. And a combination of the share of the population that is aged and the rising relative price of public services such as healthcare and education pressure future budgets.

Anyone who has worked in a political position in Washington has had ample experience with great frustration. Almost everyone involved with public policy feels as I do that there is much that is essential yet infeasible in the current political environment. Yet context is important. Concerns about gridlock are a near-constant in American political history and in important respects reflect desirable checks and balances; much more progress is occurring in key sectors than is usually acknowledged; and American decision making, for all its flaws, stands up well in global comparison.

Europe’s hair-trigger economy

Lawrence Summers
Mar 18, 2013 10:56 UTC

Europe’s economic situation is viewed with far less concern than was the case six, 12 or 18 months ago. Policymakers in Europe far prefer engaging the United States on a possible trade and investment agreement to more discussion on financial stability and growth. However, misplaced confidence can be dangerous if it reduces pressure for necessary policy adjustments.

There is a striking difference between financial crises in memory and as they actually play out. In memory, they are a concatenation of disasters. As they play out, the norm is moments of panic separated by lengthy stretches of apparent calm. It was eight months from the Korean crisis to the Russian default in 1998; six months from Bear Stearns’s demise to Lehman Brothers’ fall in 2008.

Is Europe out of the woods? Certainly a number of key credit spreads, particularly in Spain and Italy, have narrowed substantially. But the interpretation of improved market conditions is far from clear. Restrictions limit pessimistic investors’ ability to short European debt. Regulations enable local banks to treat government debt as risk-free, and they can fund it at the European Central Bank (ECB) on better-than-market terms. The suspicion exists that, if necessary, the ECB would come in strongly and bail out bondholders. Remissions sometimes are followed by cures and sometimes by relapses.

The U.S. must embrace a growth agenda

Lawrence Summers
Feb 11, 2013 13:06 UTC

There should be little disagreement across the political spectrum that growth and job creation remain America’s most serious national problem. Ahead of President Obama’s first State of the Union address of his second term, and further fiscal negotiations in Washington, America needs to rethink its priorities for economic policy.

The U.S. economy grew at a rate of 1.5 percent in 2012. Last week, the independent Congressional Budget Office projected that growth will be only 1.4 percent during 2013 – and that unemployment will rise. While the CBO says that growth will accelerate in 2014 and beyond, it nonetheless predicts that unemployment will remain above 7 percent until 2016.

A weak economy and limited job creation make growth in middle-class incomes all but impossible, add pressure to budgets by restricting tax revenue and threaten essential private and public investments in education and innovation. Worse, they undermine the American example at a dangerous time in the world.

America has multiple deficits

Lawrence Summers
Jan 22, 2013 04:05 UTC

Since the election, American public policy debate has been focused on prospective budget deficits and what can be done to reduce them. The concerns are in part economic, with a recognition that debts cannot be allowed, indefinitely, to grow faster than incomes and the capacity repay.  And they have a heavy moral dimension with regard to this generation not unduly burdening our children.  There is also an international and security dimension: The excessive buildup of debt would leave the United States vulnerable to foreign creditors and without the flexibility to respond to international emergencies.

While economic forecasts are uncertain, the great likelihood is that debts will rise relative to incomes in an unsustainable way over the next 15 years without further actions beyond those undertaken in the 2011 budget deal and the end of year agreement that averted a fall over the “fiscal cliff.” So even without the risk of self-inflicted catastrophes — like the possible failure to meet debt obligations or the shutting down of government — it is entirely appropriate for policy to focus on reducing prospective deficits.

Those who argue against a further concentration on prospective deficits on the grounds that – contingent on a forecast that assumes no recessions – the debt to gross domestic product ratio may stabilize for a decade counsel irresponsibly. Given all uncertainties and current debt levels, we should be planning to reduce debt ratios if the next decade goes well economically.

How to target untaxed wealth

Lawrence Summers
Dec 17, 2012 12:39 UTC

Sooner or later the American tax code will be reformed — probably sooner. Raising revenue will be the main motivation, but at a time of sharply increasing economic polarization, issues of fairness will be prominent too. There are also legitimate concerns about the complexity of current tax rules and their adverse effects on the economy.

So far, the debate has focused on scaling back provisions of the tax code that have favored activities traditionally deemed to be valuable. For example, there is talk of reducing deductions for charitable contributions, taxes paid to state and local governments, home mortgages, employer-provided health insurance and many less important provisions.

There are reasonable arguments to be made in each case. But taking only the “limit tax incentives” approach to tax reform has several major defects. First, if reform is designed to avoid perverse outcomes — such as the crushing of charitable contributions or more pressure on state budgets — then it will raise limited amounts of revenue. Second, this approach will address very little of the complexity in the code and is not likely to do much for recovery, since it will do little to increase demand. Third, it will do little to address concerns about fairness: The richest taxpayers actually make relatively little use of deductions and credits.

The ‘Obama debt’ fallacy

Lawrence Summers
Nov 5, 2012 15:16 UTC

Writing on behalf of the Romney campaign, my friend Mike Boskin has responded to my column from last week that argued that in a number of areas of economic policy, President Obama has the superior vision. Boskin condemns what he refers to as “Obama debt” and argues that Governor Romney has a better plan that he asserts offers “a superior alternative of balanced budgets.” While I was not writing on behalf of the Obama campaign and my piece had a much broader focus than budget deficits, several responses are appropriate.

First, Boskin is correct in noting that current budget deficits and rates of debt accumulation cannot be maintained indefinitely, and that stabilizing and ultimately reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio is important if all sorts of economic horrors are to be avoided. This is a point of agreement between the two candidates–not a basis for choosing between them.

Second, Boskin blames the current high level of deficits on President Obama’s policies, but that is hard to square with the facts. When President Clinton left office in 2001, we were paying down the national debt at the rate of several hundred billions of dollars a year with budget surpluses. Since that time the Bush administration moved the United States substantially into budget deficits with large tax cuts, major military commitments to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a new prescription drug entitlement ‑ all undertaken without offsetting expenditure reduction or increasing revenue. Beyond these decisions, the largest factor in the current level of deficits is the worst economic downturn since the Depression ‑ a downturn that began under President Bush. People will debate the merits of President Obama’s stimulus measures ‑ though I think their positive effect on growth and employment is quite clear ‑ but this debate matters little. Government employment has been contracting, and the debate over stimulus has largely faded.

This election, Obama is the wiser economic choice

Lawrence Summers
Oct 29, 2012 11:53 UTC

Even as our politicians disagree on a great deal, most experts can agree on the objectives of economic policy. The next president will not have succeeded in the economic area unless he accomplishes three things: Reestablishing economic growth at a rate that makes real reductions in unemployment possible. Placing the nation’s finances on a stable foundation by putting in place measures to assure that U.S. sovereign debt is declining relative to America’s wealth. Renewing the economy’s foundation in a way that can support steady growth in middle-class incomes over the next generation, along with work for all who want it.

Where are the candidates on these three issues? President Obama has recognized that the inadequacy of demand is the principal barrier to growth and has sought to bolster both public- and private-sector demand since becoming president. Recent work by the IMF has confirmed the premise of his policies: namely, that at a time when short-term interest rates are at zero, fiscal policies are especially potent. The president has also respected the independence of the Federal Reserve as it has sought to respond creatively to the challenge of increasing demand even with short-term interest rates zeroed out. And he has put the economy on track to nearly doubling exports over five years through a series of measures, such as increasing government support for exporters. He has made clear his commitment to taking advantage of current low interest rates to finance public investment and protect public-sector jobs, and to continue to promote US exports.

In contrast, Governor Romney supports immediate efforts to sharply reduce government spending even as economic slack remains and Congress—at the president’s behest—has already legislated the most draconian domestic discretionary spending cuts in history. Through some set of intellectual gymnastics, Mitt Romney concludes that a government purchasing a new weapon systems or the recipient of a tax cut buying luxury goods creates jobs, but spending on fixing schools and highways does not. He also seems comfortable involving himself in monetary policy, favoring a reduction in the supply of credit relative to current Fed policy. And his insistence that he will name China a currency manipulator on his first day as president, even before his appointees have moved into their offices, surely increases uncertainty by making a trade war possible.

Job #1 for the IMF: Stay the course and avoid lurches to austerity

Lawrence Summers
Oct 15, 2012 03:57 UTC

If the global economy was in trouble before the annual World Bank and IMF meetings in Tokyo this past weekend, it is hard to believe that it is now smooth sailing. Indeed, apart from the modest stimulus provided to the Japanese economy by all the official visitors to Tokyo, it’s not easy to see what of immediate value was accomplished.

The U.S. still peers over a fiscal cliff, Europe staggers forward preventing crises King Canute-style with fingers in the dyke but no compelling growth strategy, and Japan remains stagnant and content if it can grow at all. Meanwhile, each BRIC is an unhappy story in its own way, with financial imbalances impeding growth in the short run and deep problems of corruption and demography casting doubt on long-run prospects.

In much of the industrial world, what started as a financial problem is becoming a deep structural problem. If growth in the United States and Europe had been maintained at its average rate from 1990 to 2007, GDP would be between 10 and 15 percent higher today and more than 15 percent higher by 2015 on realistic projections. Of course this calculation may be misleading because global GDP in 2007 was inflated by the same factors that created financial bubbles.  Yet even if GDP was artificially inflated by 5 percentage points in 2007, output is still about $1 trillion short of what could have been expected in the U.S. and EU.  This works out to more than $12,000 for the average family.

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