My preceding post bemoaned the tendency for many US politicians to exhibit a procyclicalist pattern: supporting tax cuts and spending increases when the economy is booming, which should be the time to save money for a rainy day, and then re-discovering the evils of budget deficits only in times of recession, thus supporting fiscal contraction at precisely the wrong time. Procyclicalists exacerbate the magnitude of the swings in the business cycle. This is not just an American problem. A similar unfortunate cycle — large fiscal deficits when the economy is already expanding anyway, followed by fiscal contraction in response to a recession — has also been visible in the United Kingdom and euroland in recent years. Greece and Portugal are the two most infamous examples. But the larger European countries, as well, failed to take advantage of the expansionary period 2003-07 to strengthen their public finances, and instead ran budget deficits in excess of the limits (3% of GDP) that they were supposed to obey under the Stability and Growth Pact. Then, over the last few years, politicians in both the UK and the continent have made their recessions worse by imposing aggressive fiscal austerity at precisely the wrong time. Historically, developing countries used to be the ones where dysfunctional political systems produced procyclical fiscal policies. Almost all of them showed a positive correlation between government spending and the business cycle during the period 1960-1999. But things have changed. Remarkably, during the decade 2000-2010, about a third of emerging market governments - in countries such as China, Chile, Malaysia, Korea, Botswana, and Indonesia - managed to reverse the historical correlation. They took advantage of the boom years 2003-2007 to strengthen their budget positions, saving up for a rainy day. They were thus in a good position to ease up when the global recession hit them in 2008-09. In fact a majority of the governments that have followed countercyclical spending policies since 2000 are in emerging market or developing countries. They figured out how to achieve countercyclicality during the last decade, precisely the decade when so many politicians in “advanced countries” forgot how to.
Posts Tagged ‘cycle’
The world is in the grip of a debate between fiscal austerity and fiscal stimulus. Opponents of austerity worry about contractionary effects on the economy. Opponents of stimulus worry about indebtedness and moral hazard.
Is austerity good or bad? It is as foolish to debate this proposition as it would be to debate whether it is better for a driver to turn left or right. It depends where the car is on the road. Sometimes left is appropriate, sometimes right. When an economy is in a boom, the government should run a surplus; other times, when in recession, it should run a deficit.
True, it is hard for politicians to get the timing of countercyclical fiscal policy exactly right. This is the reason, more than any other, why Keynesian policy lost its luster. “Fine-tuning” it was called. Sometimes the fiscal stimulus would kick in after the recession was already over.
But this is no reason to follow a pro-cyclical fiscal policy. A procyclical fiscal policy piles on the spending and tax cuts on top of booms, but reduces spending and raises taxes in response to downturns. Budgetary profligacy during expansion; austerity in recessions. Procyclical fiscal policy is destabilizing, because it worsens the dangers of overheating, inflation, and asset bubbles during the booms and exacerbates the losses in output and employment during the recessions. In other words, a procyclical fiscal policy magnifies the severity of the business cycle.
Yet many politicians in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the eurozone seem to live by procyclicality. They argue against fiscal discipline when the economy is strong, only to become deficit hawks when the economy is weak. Exactly backwards.
Consider the positions taken over the last three decades by some American politicians.
First cycle: During a recessionary period, President Ronald Reagan in his 1980 campaign and in his 1981 Inaugural Address urged immediate action to reduce the national debt “beginning today.” (Recession: austerity.) But in 1988, as the economy approached the peak of the business cycle, candidate George H.W. Bush was unconcerned about budget deficits, even though the national debt was rapidly approaching three times the level it had been when Reagan had given his speeches. “Read my lips, no new taxes,” Bush famously said. (Boom: profligacy.)
Second cycle: Predictably, the first President Bush and the Congress finally summoned the political will to raise taxes and rein in spending growth at precisely the wrong moment, that is, just as the US was entering another recession in 1990. (Recession: austerity.) Although the timing of the legislation was poor, the action was courageous. The Pay as You Go Rule and other reforms switched government finances back onto a path that eventually was to eliminate the deficits by the end of the decade.
But three years later — and even though the most robust recovery in American history had begun — every Republican congressman voted against Clinton’s 1993 legislation to continue Bush’s spending caps, PAYGO, and tax increases. Nor did they change their minds in response to the subsequent success of the policy. Even after seven years of strong growth, with unemployment at the peak of the business cycle dipping below 4% for the first time since the 1960s, George W. Bush based his 2000 campaign on a platform of large long-term tax cuts. (Boom: profligacy.)
Third cycle: Even after the Bush fiscal expansion had turned the inherited record budget surpluses into record deficits, the Administration went for a 2nd round of tax cuts in 2003, and continued a rate of growth of spending that was triple the rate under Clinton (both national security and domestic spending). Vice President Richard Cheney said “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” These policies were maintained for five more years, as another $ four trillion was added to the national debt. (Boom: profligacy.)
Predictably, when the worst recession since the Great Depression hit in 2007-09, politicians felt constrained from an adequate fiscal response due to the big deficits and debts the government had already been running. Republicans suddenly re-discovered the evil of budget deficits and decided that retrenchment was urgent. They opposed Obama’s initial fiscal stimulus in February 2009, even though GDP growth and employment were much worse than they had been when Reagan and Bush had launched their tax cuts and spending increases. (Recession: austerity.) Subsequently, with a new majority in the House, they succeeded in blocking further efforts by Obama when the stimulus ran out in 2011. The government spending cutbacks of the last two years are the most important reason, in my view, why the economic recovery which began in June 2009 subsequently stalled in 2011.
Three cycles. Three generations of politicians who favored expansionary fiscal policies during a boom and then decided after a recession had hit that budget deficits were bad after all. (See the graph below.)
This is not to say that the procyclicalist politicians have always succeeded in getting their policies adopted. Clinton had a strong enough congressional majority in August 1993 that he was able to pass his budget balancing legislation (Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) — even though every Republican in Congress voted “no” at a time when the economy was expanding. Similarly, Obama had a strong enough majority in January 2009 that he was able to pass some initial fiscal stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), without a single Republican vote, at a time when the economy was in freefall. But too often the countercyclicalists are overpowered by the procyclicalists.
Trying to turn left or right at precisely the wrong points in the road is a worse record than one would get by switching policies randomly. To explain this perverse pattern, let us switch metaphors in mid-stream. It is the old problem of needing to fix the hole in the roof when the sun is shining, rather than waiting for a storm to realize that it is necessary. When the economy is booming, there is no political support for painful spending cuts or tax increases. After all, everything seems fine; why make a change? Then when the deluge comes, sinners suddenly see the evils of their ways and proclaim the necessity of reforming. Of course it is very difficult to fix the roof in the middle of a thunderstorm.
Procyclical Politicians: Support for fiscal contraction (down-arrows) and fiscal expansion (up-arrows)
- The Obama Recovery. The U.S. economy was in free fall in late 2008, whether measured by GDP statistics, the monthly jobs numbers, or inter-bank spreads. Was the end of the recession in mid-2009 attributable to policies adopted by President Obama? A full evaluation of that question to economists’ standards would require delving into the complexity of mathematical models. The public generally has a simpler standard: was the impact big enough to be visible to the naked eye? Amazingly, the answer is “yes.” Whichever of those statistics one looks at, and whether it is coincidence or not: the economic free-fall ended almost precisely the month that Obama took office, January 2009.
- Emerging markets have generally had much better economic fundamentals over the last decade than advanced economies. For example, one third of developing countries have succeeded in breaking the historical syndrome of procyclical (destabilizing) fiscal policy. For the first time, they took advantage of the boom of 2003-08 to strengthen their budget balances, which allowed a fiscal easing when the global recession hit in 2008-09.
- The 15-year cycle in EMs. Market swings that start out based firmly on fundamentals can eventually go too far. Some emerging markets like Turkey look vulnerable this year. A crash would fit the biblical pattern: seven fat years, followed by seven lean years. Here are the last three cycles of capital flows to developing countries:
- 1975-81: 7 fat years (”recycling petrodollars”)
- 1982: crash (the international debt crisis)
- 1983-1989: 7 lean years (the “Lost Decade” in Latin America)
- 1990-1996: 7 fat years (Emerging Market boom)
- 1997: crash (the East Asia crisis)
- 1997-2003: 7 lean years (currency crises spread globally)
- 2003-2011: 7 fat years (the triumph of the BRICs)
- 2012: ?
Emerging markets have performed amazingly well over the last seven years. They have outperformed the advanced industrialized countries in terms of economic growth, debt-to-GDP ratios, and countercyclical fiscal policy. Many now receive better assessments by rating agencies and financial markets than some of the advanced economies.
As 2012 begins, however, emerging markets may be due for a correction, triggered by a new wave of “risk off” behavior among investors. Will China experience a hard landing? Will a decline in commodity prices hit Latin America? Will the sovereign-debt woes of the European periphery spread to neighbors such as Turkey in a new “Aegean crisis”?
Engorged by large capital inflows, some emerging market countries were in an overheated state a year ago. It is unlikely that the rapid economic growth and high trade deficits that Turkey has experienced in recent years can be sustained. Likewise, high GDP growth rates in Brazil and Argentina over the same period could soon reverse, particularly if global commodity prices fall - not a remote prospect if the Chinese economy falters or global real interest rates were to rise this year. China, for its part, could land hard as its real-estate bubble deflates and the country’s banks are forced to work off their bad loans.
The World Bank has now downgraded economic forecasts for developing countries in 2012 (Global Economic Prospects, Jan.18, 2012). Brazil’s economic growth, for example, came to a halt in the third quarter of 2011 and is forecast at only 3.4 percent in 2012 …well below the rapid 2010 growth rate of 7.5 percent. Reflecting a sharp slowdown in the second half of the year in India, South Asia is coming off of a torrid six years, including 9.1 percent growth in 2010. Regional growth is projected to ease further to 5.8 percent in 2012.
But will economic slowdown turn to financial crash? Three possible lines of argument support the worry that emerging markets’ performance are fated to suffer dramatically in 2012: empirical, literary, and causal. Each line of argument is admittedly tentative.
The empirical argument is just historically based numerology: emerging-market crises seem to come in 15-year cycles. The international debt crisis surfaced in Mexico in mid-1982, and then spread to the rest of Latin America and beyond. The East Asian crisis erupted 15 years later, in Thailand in mid-1997, and then spread to the rest of the region and beyond. We are now another 15 years down the road. So is 2012 the time for the third round of emerging markets crises?
The hypothesis of regular boom-bust cycles is supported by a long-standing scholarly literature, such as the writings of Carmen Reinhart. But I would appeal to an even older source: the Old Testament - in particular, the story of Joseph, who was called upon by the Pharaoh to interpret a dream about seven fat cows followed by seven skinny cows.
Joseph prophesied that there would come seven years of plenty, with abundant harvests from an overflowing Nile, followed by seven lean years, with famine resulting from drought. His forecast turned out to be accurate. Fortunately the Pharaoh had empowered his technocratic official (Joseph) to save grain in the seven years of plenty, building up sufficient stockpiles to save the Egyptian people from starvation during the bad years. That is a valuable lesson for today’s government officials in industrialized and developing countries alike.
For emerging markets, the first phase of seven years of plentiful capital flows occurred in 1975-1981, with the recycling of petrodollars in the form of loans to developing countries. The international debt crisis that began in Mexico in 1982 was the catalyst for the seven lean years, known in Latin America as the “lost decade.” The turnaround year, 1989, was marked by the first issue of Brady bonds, which helped write down the debt overhang and put a line under the crisis.
The second cycle of seven fat years was the period of record capital flows to emerging markets in 1990-1996. Following the 1997 “sudden stop” in East Asia came seven years of capital drought. The third cycle of inflows, often identified as a “carry trade,” came in 2004-2011 and persisted even through the global financial crisis. If history repeats itself, it is now time for a third sudden stop of capital flows to emerging markets.
Are a couple of data points and a biblical parable enough to take the hypothesis of a 15-year cycle seriously? We need some sort of causal theory that could explain such periodicity to international capital flows.
Here is a possibility: 15 years is how long it takes for individual loan officers and hedge-fund traders to be promoted out of their jobs. Today’s young crop of asset pickers knows that there was a crisis in Turkey in 2001, but they did not experience it first hand. They think that perhaps this time is different.
If emerging markets crash in 2012, remember where you heard it first - in ancient Egypt.