Opinion

Lawrence Summers

Beyond the budget impasse

Lawrence Summers
Oct 14, 2013 11:48 UTC

This month Washington is consumed by the impasse over reopening the government and raising the debt limit. It seems likely that this episode, like the 1995-96 government shutdowns and the 2011 debt limit scare, will be remembered mainly by the people directly involved. But there is a chance future historians will see today’s crisis as the turning point where American democracy was shown to be dysfunctional — an example to be avoided rather than emulated.

The tragedy is compounded by the fact that most of the substance being debated in the current crisis is only tangentially relevant to the major challenges and opportunities facing the United States. This is the case with respect to the endless discussions about the precise timing of continuing resolutions and debt limit extensions, or the proposals to change Congressional staff healthcare packages or cut a medical device tax that represents only about .015 percent of GDP.

More fundamental is this: current and future budget deficits are now a second order problem relative to other more pressing issues facing the American economy. Projections that there will be a major deficit problem are highly uncertain. And policies that indirectly address deficit issues by focusing on growth are sounder in economic terms and more plausible in political terms than the long-run budget deals with which much of the policy community is obsessed.

The latest Congressional Budget Office projection is that the Federal deficit will fall to 2 percent of GDP by 2015 and that a decade from now the debt-to-GDP ratio will be below its current level of 75 percent. While the CBO projects that under current law the debt-to-GDP ratio will rise over the longer term, the rise is not large relative to the scale of the U.S. economy. It would be offset by an increase in revenues or a decrease in spending of .8 percent of GDP for the next 25 years and 1.7 percent of GDP for the next 75 years.

These figures lie well within any reasonable confidence interval for deficit forecasts. The most recent comprehensive CBO evaluation found that, leaving aside any errors due to policy changes, the expected error in projections out only five years is 3.5 percent of GDP. Put another way, given the magnitude of forecast uncertainties there is a chance of close to 40 percent that with no new policy actions the ratio of debt-to-GDP will decline over 25 or 75 years.

It’s too soon to return to normal policies

Lawrence Summers
Mar 26, 2012 00:00 UTC

Economic forecasters divide into two groups: those who cannot know the future but think they can, and those who recognize their inability to know the future. Shifts in the economy are rarely forecast and often not fully recognized until they have been under way for some time. So judgments about the U.S. economy have to be tentative. What can be said is that for the first time in five years a resumption of growth significantly above the economy’s potential now appears as a substantial possibility. Put differently, after years when the risks to the consensus modest-growth forecast were to the downside, they are now very much two-sided.

As winter turned to spring in 2010 and 2011, many observers thought they detected evidence that the economy had decisively turned, only to be disappointed a few months later. A variety of considerations suggest that this time may be different. Employment growth has been running well ahead of population growth. The stock market level is higher and its expected volatility lower than at any time since the crisis began in 2007, suggesting that the uncertainty hanging over business has declined. Consumers who have been deferring purchases of cars and other durable goods have created pent-up demand. The housing market seems to be stabilizing. For years now, the rate of family formation has been way below normal as young people moved in with their parents. At some point they will set out on their own, creating a virtuous circle of a stronger housing market, more family formation and demand, and further improvement in housing conditions. Innovation around mobile information technology, social networking and newly discovered oil and natural gas is likely, assuming appropriate regulatory policies, to drive significant investment and job creation.

True, the risks of high oil prices, further problems in Europe, and financial fallout from anxiety about future deficits remain salient. However, unlike in 2010 and 2011, it is probable that these risks are already priced into markets and factored into outlooks for consumer and business spending. There has already been a significant escalation in oil prices. The European situation is hardly resolved but is unlikely to deteriorate as much in the next months as it did last year. And market participants report great alarm about the deficit situation. So it would not take great news in any of these areas for them to actually contribute to upward revisions in current forecasts.

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