Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

Are Concerns over Growing Federal Government Debt Misplaced?

L. Randall Wray | November 10, 2021

If the global financial crisis (GFC) of the mid-to-late 2000s and the COVID crisis of the past couple of years have taught us anything, it is that Uncle Sam cannot run out of money. During the GFC, the Federal Reserve lent and spent over $29 trillion to bail out the world’s financial system,[1] and then trillions more in various rounds of “unconventional” monetary policy known as quantitative easing.[2] During the COVID crisis, the Treasury has (so far) cut checks totaling approximately $5 trillion, often dubbed stimulus. Since the Fed is the Treasury’s bank, all of these payments ran through it—with the Fed clearing the checks by crediting private bank reserves.[3] As former Chairman Ben Bernanke explained to Congress, the Fed uses computers and keystrokes that are limited only by Congress’s willingness to budget for Treasury spending, and the Fed’s willingness to buy assets or lend against them[4]—perhaps to infinity and beyond. Let’s put both affordability and solvency concerns to rest: the question is never whether Uncle Sam can spend more, but should he spend more.[5]

If the Treasury spends more than received in tax payments over the course of a year, we call that a deficit. Under current operating procedures adopted by the Fed and Treasury, new issues of Treasury debt over the course of the year will be more-or-less equal to the deficit. Every year that the Treasury runs a deficit it adds to the outstanding debt; surpluses reduce the amount outstanding. Since the founding of the nation, the Treasury has ended most years with a deficit, so the outstanding stock has grown during just about 200 years (declining in the remainder).[6] Indeed, it has grown faster than national output, so the debt-to-GDP ratio has grown at about 1.8 percent per year since the birth of the nation.[7]

If something trends for over two centuries with barely a break, one might begin to consider it normal. And yet, strangely enough, the never-achieved balanced budget is considered to be normal, the exceedingly rare surplus is celebrated as a noteworthy achievement, and the all-too-common deficit is scorned as abnormal, unsustainable, and downright immoral. continue reading…

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Is Climate Change a Fiscal or Monetary Policy Challenge?

Lekha Chakraborty |

Lekha Chakraborty
(Professor, NIPFP, and Member of Governing Board, International Institute of Public Finance, Munich)

Climate change is about risks and uncertainty. How well the monetary policy stance can incorporate such risks and uncertainties is questioned by many economists. There is a broad consensus among economists that fiscal policy is capable of dealing with the climate crisis but monetary policy is not, due to the latter’s lack of tools. It is widely acknowledged that public finance commitments are essential to lowering carbon emissions. Public finance interventions—through taxation to reduce carbon prints or through public expenditure to support green energy and technology—have proven to be effective in reducing emissions. However, such empirical evidence is absent in the case of monetary policy.

India was the first to integrate a climate change criterion in its inter-governmental fiscal transfers. The macroeconomic policy channel of these “ecological fiscal transfers” works through the prioritization of public expenditure on climate change commitments by subnational governments, to make a “just transition” towards a sustainable climate-resilient economy. continue reading…

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Why “Output Gap” Is Inadequate

Lekha Chakraborty | January 4, 2021

by Lekha Chakraborty and Amandeep Kaur[1]

The macroeconomic uncertainty during the Covid-19 pandemic is hard to measure. Economists and policymakers use the “output gap” variable to capture “slack.” It is a deviation between potential output and actual output, which is a standard representation of a “cycle.” The potential output is an unobserved variable. There is an increasing concern about the way we measure potential output—decomposing the output into trends and cycles. This is because the business cycle is not always a “cycle.” Sometimes, the “cycle is the trend.”[2]

When macroeconomic crises and recessions tend to “permanently” push down the level of a country’s GDP, it is inappropriate to assume that output will bounce back to previous levels. The notion of the output gap is ill-conceived and ill-measured. Scholars have highlighted the significance of “hysteresis” (the dependence of economic path on history) in analyzing the output dynamics in crisis.[3] Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, there is a renewed interest in hysteresis and business cycles. The state of the economy and the level of GDP are history dependent (hysteresis). The concept of hysteresis has urgent relevance for designing apt fiscal and monetary policies to tackle low demand during recessions. continue reading…

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Jan Kregel: Why Stimulus Cannot Solve the Pandemic Depression

Michael Stephens | May 11, 2020

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On the Concert of Interests and Unlearning the Lessons of the 1930s

Michael Stephens | April 20, 2017

Jan Kregel opened this year’s Minsky Conference (which just wrapped up yesterday) with a reminder that the broader public challenges we face today are still in many ways an echo of those that faced the nation in 1930s. What follows is an abridged version of those remarks:

This year’s conference takes place in an increasingly charged and divisive economic and political atmosphere. Sharp differences in approach are present within the new administration, within the majority party, and even within the opposition. It is a rather different environment than the one envisaged when planning for the Conference started last September. I had originally proposed as a title “The New Administration meets the New Normal: Economic Policy for Secular Stagnation.” It was an obvious attempt to hedge our bets on the outcome of the election. After the election the first adjustment to the title was “Can the New Mercantilism Displace the New Normal: Economic Policy under the New Administration.” As you can see the final title eventually adopted the elocution proposed at the presidential Inauguration.

My intention was not to elicit recollection of the “America First” committee’s support of isolation from the emerging European conflict in the 1930s. It was rather to recall that the phrase was first used, to my knowledge, by Franklin Roosevelt during his first election campaign.

Herbert Hoover had resolutely refrained from direct government support for the growing masses of the unemployed (although support was more than most give him credit for) for fear of interfering with the operation of the market mechanism in producing recovery from what was presumed to be a temporary cyclical downturn: “Recovery was just around the corner.” When this did not occur as expected the blame was laid on foreign financial and political events eroding confidence.

For Roosevelt, Hoover’s policy implied that “farmers and workers must wait for general recovery until some miracle occurs by which the factory wheels revolve again” but “No one knows the formula for this miracle.” Instead he argued in favor of direct measures to “restore prosperity here in this country by re-establishing the purchasing power of half the people of the country … In this respect, I am for America first.”

Instead of the miracle of a spontaneous market recovery, Roosevelt promised to take action to defend the condition of the “forgotten man” by offering him a “new deal” to protect from the ravages of bankers and industrialists. The simple substitution of “America Great” for “new deal” suggests an important similarity between the rhetoric and the target audience of the two campaigns.

It is instructive that in both cases the election was won with promises, creating a belief that appropriate actions would be forthcoming. We know from history how Roosevelt proceeded by experimentation, by trial and error, of what at the time were considered audacious, radical policies.

The question before us today is how the experimentation of the new administration may be directed to fulfill campaign promises. continue reading…

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India’s Unexplored “Bill of Rights”: A Tool for Gender-Sensitive Public Policy

Lekha Chakraborty | March 3, 2017

The Justice Verma Committee submitted its report on January 23, 2013. In addition to recommendations for reforming laws related to sexual violence, harassment, and trafficking, it provided a comprehensive framework for gender justice through a proposed “Bill of Rights.” The Verma Committee’s recommendations are still waiting to be transformed into public policy.

We must not forget that this document represents an intense 30 days of work in response to a brutal gang rape of a young student in the heart of the nation’s capital in a public transport vehicle in the late evening of December 16, 2012. She was returning home with her friend after watching “Life of Pi.”

The power of this report is the acknowledgment (in the very first line of the report) that this brutal event represents a “failure of governance to provide a safe and dignified environment for the women of India, who are constantly exposed to sexual violence.” The acknowledgement is a clarion call for government policies to ensure dignity, safe mobility, and security for women.

“Bill of Rights”

The Bill of Rights is a proposed charter that would set out the rights guaranteed to women under the Constitution of India, against the backdrop of India’s commitment to international conventions. These rights are articulated as the right to life, security, and bodily integrity; democratic and civil rights; the right to equality and non-discrimination; the right to secured spaces; the right to special protections (for the elderly and disabled); and the right to special protection for women in distress.

The beauty of this Bill of Rights is that, unlike public policy approaches in which women facing differing challenges and circumstances are all treated the same, a careful analysis of heterogeneity is captured in these five dimensions (in this context, it is noteworthy that the Committee’s work is informed by Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach”). Conceptually, the Bill of Rights lays out an analytical framework for gender budgeting to be conducted in the realm of “internal security.” When translating the Bill of Rights into policy, we need to examine existing budgets through a “gender lens” and rectify the deprivations thereby revealed.

Gender Issues in Public Policy

After every Union Budget, questions arise as to “what’s in it for women?”, but these debates have been largely been confined to just the rise and fall in allocations. The “rule of law” is a public good. The purpose of this post is to highlight this significant policy document—lying largely unexplored and with its recommendations mostly untouched—on women’s rights in India. Though the Verma Committee report was constituted to recommend “amendments to the Criminal Law so as to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assault against women,” it is written in a broader context than just analyzing the legal codes.

The mere existence of the best-designed democratic institutions does not guarantee success: as noted by the Verma Committee report, even perfect laws would remain ineffective without the “individual virtuosity” of the human agency necessary for implementing the laws. Similarly, although gender budgeting—a silent revolution that integrates gender consciousness into fiscal policy frameworks—has been applied in the case of a few public expenditure budgets, it has remained sporadic and ineffective, in part due to insufficient capacity-building among the bureaucracy and a lack of accountability mechanisms.

Will the Fifteenth Finance Commission Integrate Gender?

In a co-operative federalism, it is high time that the Finance Commission “own” and integrate the gender concerns articulated in the Verma Committee’s proposed “Bill of Rights”—either in formula-based unconditional grants with a gender indicator/index as one of the criteria (just as a “climate change” variable appeared in the formula of the Fourteenth Finance Commission in sharing the divisible tax pool with the States), or as specific-purpose grants to the States to engage in meaningful gender-budgeting fiscal policy practices at the subnational level. This idea has been analyzed in my papers published by the IMF (2016) and the Levy Economics Institute (2016; 2014; 2010).

The Bill of Rights framed in the Justice Verma Committee Report can form the foundation for gender budgeting in a “law and order” context. Gender budgeting in criminal justice is a public good and needs effective planning and financing strategies, but it has so far been limited to the creation of the “Nirbhaya Fund” (designed to fund new schemes for the safety and security for women, with an initial allocation of Rs. 1,000 crores), which has been unused since 2013.

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“Stimulus” Isn’t the Best Reason to Support (or Oppose) Infrastructure Spending

Michael Stephens | December 15, 2016

A little while back, Pavlina Tcherneva appeared with Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal to talk about the potential infrastructure policy of president-elect Donald Trump. She noted that, contrary to initial assumptions, the upcoming administration may not end up pushing public-debt-financed infrastructure spending, and that if the program simply amounts to tax incentives and public-private partnerships, it won’t be nearly as effective. But Tcherneva added another important dimension to this debate. (You can watch the interview here):

Tcherneva’s point is that infrastructure investment should be determined primarily by the state of dilapidation or obsolescence of our roads, bridges, etc., and not so much by the moment we occupy in the business cycle.

There are some who would argue that the time for a large fiscal stimulus has passed, with unemployment at 4.6 percent and growth continuing apace. There’s a good argument to be made that we’re not at “full employment” even at this moment, and that there’s no need to back off on stimulus (though there’s still the question as to whether the Federal Reserve would attempt to depress economic activity by raising interest rates in response to any substantial fiscal expansion — and, additionally, whether the Fed would succeed in those circumstances). But the point is, where you stand on this debate regarding the business cycle and the meaning of full employment shouldn’t be the driving factor behind infrastructure policy — we shouldn’t necessarily pursue or avoid infrastructure repairs and improvements for those reasons.

Moreover, if you’re looking for a job creation program, which Tcherneva would argue ought to be the point of “stimulus,” there are more effective options. In particular, she advocates a job guarantee that would provide paid employment at a minimally decent wage to all who are willing and able to work. Among other reasons, Tcherneva notes that such a program, which automatically expands during economic downturns and contracts in better times, is more effective as a countercyclical stabilizer, as compared to spending on infrastructure projects (read the tweet-storm version of the argument here).

And given that infrastructure seems to have become the go-to spending-side stimulus policy, we might also want to think about the distributive implications. continue reading…

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New Book on Fiscal Policy and Macro in India

Michael Stephens | October 24, 2016

*Post Updated Below*

Fiscal Consolidation, Budget Deficits and the Macro Economy, by Research Associate Lekha Chakraborty, deals with debates about the macroeconomic effects of budget deficits in the context of examining fiscal policy in India over the period 1980/81–2012/13.

From the Introduction:

In India, efforts were … made to contain the fiscal deficit by both the central and state governments. The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act was enacted by the Government of India in 2000 with the aim to … reduce the fiscal deficit to three per cent of GDP by 2008-09. All the states in India also have introduced FRBM legislation. The rationale behind the reduction in fiscal deficits emanated from the theoretical paradigms of macroeconomics which argued that excessive fiscal deficits often trigger inflationary pressures in the economy, increase the rate of interest and crowd out private capital formation, create balance of payments crises and in turn debt spiraling. However, considerable ambiguity exists about the link between fiscal deficit and macroeconomic activity.

For more, visit Sage:

lekha-chakraborty_new-book_sage

 

Update:

Reviews of the book by Pulapre BalakrishnanVito Tanzi, and Janet Stotsky may be of interest to potential readers.

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The Problem with “Gender-Blind” Economics

Michael Stephens | October 7, 2016

Pavlina Tcherneva joins Laura Flanders to discuss the need for a more gender-aware economics:

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Paul McCulley Has Had It with Orthodox Macroeconomists

Michael Stephens | June 13, 2016

Writing in The Hill, Paul McCulley argues that his profession’s fussy obsession with the Fed’s zero-point-whatever monetary policy is leading us into a dead end: “after a financial crisis, itself spawned by bursting of a bubble in private-sector debt creation, the power of monetary policy to generate robust aggregate spending growth is severely truncated.”

The policy problem we need desperately to solve — whose solution is key to a robust recovery, McCulley argues — is fiscal: “fiscal deficits need to be dramatically bigger.” To that end, he adds, it’s time to place the concept of “central bank independence” in its proper context:

Central bank independence has its time and place. But when economic growth is milquetoast and the reality is that inflation is too low, not too high (with the risk of outright deflation in the event of a recessionary shock), there is no reason whatsoever for the monetary and fiscal authorities to act independently — as if they were oil and water — in pursuit of the common public good.

Right now, what the country needs is for the fiscal authority to exercise its latitude to purposely ramp up its spending more than its taxing, and for the monetary authority to print however much money is necessary to keep interest rates low, unless and until inflation smacks the economy in the face. And the fiscal and monetary authorities need to openly declare that these actions are a political joint venture.

Yes, my profession needs to remember that macroeconomics, as a discipline, is about solving collective action problems. The solutions are often politically messy, offending the sensibilities of the moneyed class. Such is the nature of effective democracy: Messiness that delivers for all.

Read it all here.

Related: “Central Bank Independence: Myth and Misunderstanding

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