Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Losses from Trade?

Karl Smith has an interesting idea about trade, explained here discursively and with a link to his paper in progress here. The traditional Ricardian theory of gains from trade applies in the case of certainty: those who benefit from liberalized trade will have sufficient benefits that they could (theoretically) compensate the losers and still end up better off, so trade is Kaldor-Hicks efficient ex post. But in a world with uncertainty (and with incomplete insurance markets), liberalization of trade can be Pareto inefficient ex ante. That is, the increased risk to everyone could be such a disadvantage that it outweighs the average expected gains and makes the contemplated liberalization a net disadvantage to everyone involved.

The same could presumably be said for any change that increases uncertainty, which might include technological change. I have a vague, intuitive sense that trade introduces more uncertainty than does technological change, but right now I don’t have any evidence to support that idea.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More about knzn fiscal policy

Thanks to Mark Thoma for picking up my last post. I think I could fill my blog for a month with daily posts responding to Mark’s comment, the comments on my blog, and the comments on Mark's blog. For today, anyhow, I’m just going to address one issue. As Mark notes:
…there are two separate issues here, one is stabilization policy and for that part of fiscal policy I have no problem with requiring that the budget be balanced over the business cycle. The other is investments in, say, human and physical capital…
I’ll certainly agree there are (at least) two issues, and maybe in the future I will comment on how the two interact. For now, I want to address the first issue.

From a pure stabilization point of view, I don’t think that balancing the budget over the business cycle is a good idea, in part for reasons already discussed in my previous post, and in part because I’m not even sure I believe in the whole concept of a “business cycle” per se. Business, and the macroeconomy, unquestionably has its ups and downs, but so does, for example, the stock market. We don’t normally speak of a “stock market cycle” (although some people do). There are recessions, and there are depressions, and there are inflationary booms, and there are non-inflationary booms. Recessions are limited by definition, but depressions can persist for many years. Inflationary booms are self-limiting, but the jury is still out on non-inflationary booms. Even if recessions and inflationary booms were the only phenomena, they can’t necessarily be expected to alternate: you could have 3 recessions in a row, separated by incomplete recoveries, and followed by 2 inflationary booms in a row, separated by a “soft landing.” The word “cycle” suggests a symmetry which is not, in general, present.

On the purely semantic point, I can accept the use of the word “cycle” for want of a better term, but the argument to balance the budget over the business cycle seems to rest on a substantive presumption of symmetry. It presumes that the stimulus needed during times of economic weakness will be exactly compensated by the excess revenue available during times of economic strength.

You might argue this symmetry must apply in the very long run, because the government has to satisfy an intertemporal budget constraint. Even that point is debatable: in the very long run, the government’s budget constraint applies only if the interest rate is at least as high as the growth rate. Otherwise, if you look out far enough into the future, there will always eventually be enough revenue to pay off any debt the government might accumulate over any finite stretch of time. Some have argued that, empirically, the government typically has faced an interest rate that is less than the growth rate.

But that’s not really my point. I’m cognizant of Keynes’ famous warning about excessive concern with the long run. And a single “business cycle” isn’t much of a long run, anyhow. Conventional business cycle theory might argue for a certain symmetry based on the characteristics of the Phllips curve, under the assumptions that the curve is linear in the short run and vertical in the long run. Under those assumptions, deviations from the NAIRU in one direction are always compensated – let’s say in the medium run – by deviations in the other direction. For the sake of argument I’m willing to accept the vertical long-run Phillips curve, but the linear short-run curve seems to me to be more an econometric convenience than a credible assertion about reality. Back when people believed in static Phillips curves, they used to plot the curves. I’ve seen reproductions of such plots, I can’t remember ever seeing one that looked like a straight line.

Even if (counterfactually) the business cycle is symmetric, it isn’t well-defined, at least not until after the fact. The NBER can’t make the government retroactively balance the budget once it decides what the business cycle dates were. Even if our goal is to balance the budget over one “cycle,” there is no obvious policy that would result in such a balance. The closest we could come is perhaps to require the budget be balanced over, say, 5 calendar years, but that strikes me as a very bad policy: during the first 3 years, we won’t know in advance whether the next 2 are going to be stronger or weaker economically, so we won’t know whether to run a deficit or a surplus. Knowing Congress, I expect the tendency would be to declare the first 3 years a recession and run deficits, which would then require surpluses during the last 2 years and result in an actual recession.

So here’s my alternative proposal: pick a set of interest rates and make fiscal rules contingent on those interest rates. For example, when the 10-year Treasury yield rises above 4%, a deficit ceiling goes into effect; when it rises above 5%, pay-go rules go into effect; when it rises above 6%, a surtax and specific spending restraints go into effect; and so on. We can quibble about the details, and in any case they can be adjusted later if necessary. But this policy makes a lot more sense to me than some attempt to handicap a vague business cycle (or for that matter a vague “trend” in the debt-to-GDP ratio, which can also be hard to identify without benefit of hindsight).

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Keynesian Fiscal Policy

A conventional “Keynesian” view of fiscal policy holds that the government should run deficits when the economy is weak and surpluses when the economy is strong. Some commentators suggest (as Andrew Samwick does here; hat tip: Brad DeLong) that the budget should be balanced over the business cycle, with no net accumulation of debt. I consider myself a Keynesian, but I think this conventional view is consistent neither with that of Keynes himself nor with what we have learned in the subsequent years.

My alternative view, which I submit for Lord Keynes’ posthumous approval, is that fiscal policy should depend on nominal interest rates. When interest rates are high, for example, it makes no sense to run deficits no matter how weak the economy is. When interest rates are high, the central bank has the option of stimulating the economy by creating more money and pushing interest rates down. If it isn’t doing so already (which, by assumption, it isn’t; otherwise interest rates wouldn’t be high), either the central bankers aren’t very smart (in which case why should we expect the fiscal authorities to be any smarter?) or else they are deliberately keeping the economy weak for some reason. In the latter case, they can be expected to react to any anticipated fiscal stimulus by tightening monetary policy and raising interest rates even further. Indeed, this is just what the Fed did in response the Kemp-Roth tax cut in 1981. I would have recommended running a surplus instead of a deficit under those conditions, even in the depths of the 1982 recession. A fiscal surplus would have minimized the damage done by the tight money policy, and, my guess is, it would not have slowed the recovery materially, because the weak demand would have brought inflation down more quickly, and consequently the Fed would have loosened more quickly.

Now consider an example where interest rates are low. In this case the central bank has the option of slowing down the economy by tightening the money supply and pushing interest rates up, but it may not have the option of stimulating the economy by creating more money and pushing interest rates down. If interest rates are already low, there isn’t much room to push interest rates down, and the stimulus that can be accomplished by this process may be inadequate. And the business cycle is not very predictable. Therefore, even if the economy appears to be growing adequately today, there is no guarantee that it will be doing so tomorrow. In times of low interest rates, fiscal policy should plan for the possibility of a recession by running a deficit, even if economists don’t see a recession as a strong possibility (which, after all, they seldom do, but somehow recessions happen anyway). As long as the central bank isn’t worried about a recession, it can use monetary policy to prevent the economy from overheating, but if it does begin to foresee weakness, it will have room for a stimulus, since the budget deficit will have prevented interest rates from getting too low.

You might object, “What if interest rates stay low and the government keeps borrowing money? We don’t want to pass on these debts to our children (at least Andrew Samwick doesn’t).” My answer – and I think Keynes would have agreed – is, “So what?” For one thing, if interest rates are low, the cost of running a deficit is low. In fact, it can be argued that there is no cost to running a deficit when the interest rate is lower than the growth rate, because the revenue available to pay back the debt will be greater (relative to what needs to be paid) than the revenue available to avoid a deficit in the first place. My own belief is that marginal return on government investment will be sufficient to justify spending levels under these circumstances, but even if it isn’t, the harm done is not great. The harm done by not running sufficient deficits could be quite substantial. And recalling historical periods when interest rates remained low and the government continued borrowing money – the 1930s-1940s in the US and the 1990s-2000s in Japan – I don’t think they regretted the borrowing, and I think most economists would say they didn’t borrow enough.

Plus, I have a more fundamental objection to the idea that passing on debts to our children is unfair. Those who have read my blog from the beginning will feel a sense of déjà vu here, but: Is it unfair to bequeath your children a house with a mortgage? I don’t think so. And I expect there will always be a “house” to go along with the “mortgage” our government leaves to future generations of Americans. In the past it has almost always been the case (across times and places) that each generation left more net economic wealth to the following generation than it had received from the previous one. And in those rare situations where this wasn’t the case, it wasn’t because the generation in question had borrowed too much. My guess is it will continue to be the case in America’s future. If our generation does fail subsequent generations, it will perhaps be because we didn’t spend enough on finding solutions to global warming (or other problems that may plague future generations); it won’t be because we borrowed money to pay for those solutions.

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