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 ‘tax cuts’
Why do so many countries so often wander far off the path of fiscal responsibility? Concern about budget deficits has become a burning political issue in the United States, has helped persuade the United Kingdom to enact stringent cuts despite a weak economy, and is the proximate cause of the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, which has grown to engulf the entire eurozone. Indeed, among industrialized countries, hardly a one is immune from fiscal woes.
Clearly, part of the blame lies with voters who don’t want to hear that budget discipline means cutting programs that matter to them, and with politicians who tell voters only what they want to hear. But another factor has attracted insufficient notice: systematically over-optimistic official forecasts.
Such forecasts underlie governments’ failure to take advantage of boom periods to strengthen their finances, including running budget surpluses. During the expansion of 2001-2007, for example, the US government made optimistic budget forecasts at each stage. These forecasts supported enacting big long-term tax cuts and accelerating growth in spending (both military and domestic). European countries behaved similarly, running up ever-higher debts. Predictably, when global recession hit in 2008, most countries had little or no “fiscal space” to implement countercyclical policy.
In most cases, the problems have long been plain for objective observers to see, but public officials kept their heads buried in the sand. Over the period 1986-2009, the bias in official U.S. deficit forecasts averaged 0.4 % of GDP at the one-year horizon, 1% at two years, and 3.1% at three years. Forecasting errors were particularly damaging during the past decade. The U.S. government in 2001-03, for example, was able to enact large tax cuts and accelerated spending measures by forecasting that budget surpluses would remain strong. The Office of Management and Budget long turned out optimistic budget forecasts, no matter how many times it was proven wrong. For eight years, it never stopped forecasting that the budget would return to surplus by 2011, even though virtually every independent forecast showed that deficits would continue into the new decade unabated.
How were American officials in the last decade able to make forecasts that departed so far from subsequent reality? In three sorts of ways. The first comes in the form of optimistic baseline macroeconomic assumptions such as a high and everlasting growth rate. OMB forecasts of economic growth were biased upward: by a huge 3.8% at the three-year horizon.
Second, some politicians argued that tax cuts were consistent with fiscal discipline by appealing to two fanciful theories: the Laffer Proposition, which says that cuts in tax rates will pay for themselves via higher economic activity, and the Starve the Beast Hypothesis, which says that tax cuts will increase the budget deficit but that this will put downward pressure on federal spending.
Sanguine macroeconomic assumptions will do the job in the context of OMB forecasts and fanciful theories about the effects of tax cuts can deliver the rosy scenarios of presidential speeches. But to get optimistic fiscal forecasts out of the Congressional Budget Office a third, more extreme, strategy was required. (In 2003, when some Lafferite congressmen tried to get CBO to say that “dynamic scoring” of the effects of tax rate cuts would show higher revenue, the estimates from the independent agency did not give the answer they wanted.)
To understand the third strategy, begin with the requirement that CBO’s baseline forecasts must take their tax and spending assumptions from current law. Elected officials in the last decade therefore hard-wired over-optimistic budget forecasts from CBO by excising from current law expensive policies that they had every intention of pursuing in the future. Often they were explicit about the difference between their intended future policies and the legislation that they wrote down.
Four examples: (i) the continuation of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which were paid for with “supplemental” budget requests when the time came, as if they were an unpredictable surprise); (ii) annual revocation of purported cuts in payments to doctors that would have driven them out of Medicare if ever allowed to go into effect; (iii) annual patches for the Alternative Minimum Tax (which otherwise threatened to expose millions of middle class families to taxes that had never been intended to apply to them); and (iv) the intended extension in 2011 of the income tax cuts and estate tax abolition that were legislated in 2001 with a sunset provision for 2010, which most lawmakers knew would be difficult to sustain. All four are examples of expensive policy measures that Congress fully intended would take place, but that it excluded from legislation so that the official forecasts would misleadingly appear to show smaller deficits and a return to surplus after 2010.
Unrealistic macroeconomic assumptions, fanciful theories about tax cuts, and legislation that deliberately misrepresented policy plans all worked as intended, yielding over-optimistic forecasts. These in turn help to explain excessive budget deficits. In particular, they explain the failure to run surpluses during the economic expansion from 2002-2007: if growth is projected to last indefinitely, retrenchment is regarded as unnecessary.
Many have suggested that budget woes can best be held in check through fiscal-policy rules such as deficit or debt caps. Some countries have already enacted laws along these lines. The most important and well-known example is the eurozone’s fiscal rules, which supposedly limit budget deficits to 3% of GDP and public debt to 60% of GDP for countries to join. The European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) dictated that member countries must continue to meet the criteria. We have now seen how well that worked out.
Other countries have also adopted fiscal rules, most of which fail. Switzerland’s structural budget rule (”debt brake”) is well-designed to allow higher deficits in recessions automatically, counterbalanced by surpluses in expansion periods. But the success of any budget rule depends on accurate forecasts of government spending and revenues. Getting those forecasts right has proven to be difficult for most countries.
Part of the problem is that governments that are subject to budget rules, such as Europe’s SGP, put out official forecasts that are even more biased than the US or other countries. The Greek government, for example, in 2000 projected that its fiscal deficit would shrink below 2% of GDP one year in the future and below 1% of GDP two years into the future, and that the fiscal balance would swing to surplus three years into the future. The actual balance was a deficit of 4-5% of GDP - well above the EU’s 3%-of-GDP ceiling.
In almost all industrialized countries, official forecasts have an upward bias, which is stronger at longer horizons. On average, the gap between the projected budget balance and the realized balance among a set of 33 countries is 0.2% of GDP at the one-year horizon, 0.8 % at the two-year horizon, and 1.5 % at the three-year horizon. So, how can governments’ tendency to satisfy fiscal targets by wishful thinking be overcome? In 2000, Chile created structural budget institutions that may have solved the problem. Independent expert panels, insulated from political pressures, are responsible for estimating the long-run trends that determine whether a given deficit is deemed structural or cyclical.
The result is that, unlike in most industrialized countries, Chile’s official forecasts of growth and fiscal performance have not been overly optimistic, even in booms. The ultimate demonstration of the success of the country’s fiscal institutions: unlike many countries in the North, Chile took advantage of the 2002-2007 expansion to run substantial budget surpluses, which enabled it to loosen fiscal policy in the 2008-2009 recession. Perhaps other countries should follow its lead.
[A shorter version of this op-ed was published by Project Syndicate. It draws on several recent academic publications of mine, especially "Over-optimism in Forecasts by Official Budget Agencies and Its Implications," Oxford Review of Economic Policy 27, no.4, 2011, 536-562.]
The famous Paradox of Thrift holds now more than ever: what is good for the individual, and for the economy in the long run — high saving — is bad for the economy in the short run. During the current worst-post-30s recession we need a boost to demand. In the longer run we need more saving.
Americans could not have gotten the timing worse. During the three expansions of 1983-2007 the economy grew well, and by the end of the period the first baby boomers had reached their peak earning years. Yet households’ saving rates declined, falling almost to zero in 2005-07. Meanwhile, the government ran record deficits, reducing national saving even more (in the 1980s and 2000s; the late 1990s saw surpluses). It is ironic that the pro-capital orientation to the Reagan tax cuts of 1981-83 and the Bush tax cuts of 2001-03 was largely sold as an incentive to increase saving and investment, and yet household saving fell sharply subsequent to both policy changes — to say nothing of national saving. The increase in the after-tax return to saving did not lead to a “return to saving.”
The saving rate was so low before the financial crisis that it had nowhere to go but up, even if the timing has been awful. Incidentally, that the first substantial increase in American saving rates in 30 years has come in response to the worst recession in 70 years should put a nail in the coffin of macroeconomists’ practice of lavishing attention in their models on the mathematics of intertemporal optimization. (But it probably won’t.)
Presumably the magnitude of the current economic dislocation is teaching many blind-sided individuals the value of precautionary saving. We certainly will need further increases in saving as soon as the recession is over. But have we seen a major permanent change in Americans’ anti-saving culture? I fear not. Even now, it does not occur to people that it is desirable to pay cash for auto purchases or other consumer durables, or eventually to pay off their mortgage when possible. Even now, it does not occur to politicians to change the pro-housing bias in the tax law, by eliminating the tax-deductibility of mortgage interest for example.
Moreover, the very first baby-boomers have now started to retire. Increasingly, the higher saving rate of those who see retirement looming ahead (some of whom now “have religion”) will be counteracted by the dis-saving of those who do retire.
The same thing will probably happen in other countries. Indeed, in Japan, which reached the retirement bulge first, the saving rate fell correspondingly. Europe and China will probably follow. I declare the end of the “global savings glut.” Real interest rates will have to rise.
In my earlier post, I catalogued some quotes from high Bush Administration officials asserting the Laffer claim that a cut in US tax rates stimulates income so much that the Treasury ends up taking in more revenue than before. I didn’t then quote in detail the extensive statements made by the Director of Office of Management and Budget, Joshua Bolten, in July 2005.
Director Bolton’s statements are of particular interest for several reasons. First, by 2005 it had become obvious to any objective observer that (1) the record budget surplus inherited by the Bush Administration had been quickly converted into a record budget deficit, and that (2) the aggressive Bush tax cuts were a major cause of that swing (as was the sharp acceleration in federal spending, both domestic and international, relative to the 1990s). Second, while the utterings of President Bush himself can in general perhaps be dismissed as not to be taken seriously, Bolten was the professional whose job is to be responsible for the integrity of the budget process. (Indeed, he is a higher-quality civil servant than some in the Bush Administration who have been quick to “bolt on” crazy ideological propositions to what should be serious positions.)
Here is what the OMB director had to say about the Laffer proposition:
“And with all those economic gains, we are also seeing more revenues coming into the Federal Treasury. We have arrived at this point largely because of this President’s and this Congress’ pro-growth policies, especially tax relief. Those policies have strengthened the economy, which is now producing better-than-expected revenues.” — Testimony of Joshua B. Bolten, Mid Session Reivioew of the President’s FY 2006 Budget Requst, Committee on the Budget, U.S. House of Representatives, page 1, para. 3.
And lots more:
“The tax cuts proposed by the President and enacted by Congress are not the [budget] problem. They are, and will be, part of the solution…Had Congress not enacted the President’s three tax relief packages, moreover, the economy would be substantially weaker than it is…The most effective way to lower future deficits is to grow the economy. And the President’s tax packages have been well designed to do precisely that.”
“…all economists, I think will agree very strongly that when you reduce taxes, put more money back into the economy, that has a feedback effect in the economy that causes growth and in turn increases receipts. And being able to measure those receipts, to see how much better the government’s fiscal situation is as a result of the tax cuts would be something I’d very much like to include in the numbers….We think we’ve done the right things by making the tax cuts to restore the economy to growth, because what got us into the difficulty deficit situation in the first place is the flagging growth, flagging receipts in the economy. We think the best way back is to restore the economy to growth, and restore receipts that correspond to it…. ”
Q: “…you’ve got a substantial drop in the deficit [forecasted] in 2005…”
A: “…there are other factors involved, and one of them is the ‘03 tax cut.”
– Press Briefing by OMB Director Josh Bolton, The White House, July 15, 2003.
Following up on my preceding post, I will here document who has said what.
High officials in the Reagan Administration apparently did subscribe to the Laffer Hypothesis:
• Reagan himself: “…our kind of tax cut will so stimulate the economy that we will actually increase government revenues…” July 7, 1981 speech 1/
• His Secretary of the Treasury, Don Regan, even after events had falsified the proposition to the satisfaction of most observers, wrote of his “very strong opinion that a tax cut would produce more revenue than a tax increase.”2/
Also: “The increase in revenues should be financed not by new and higher taxes, but by lower tax rates that would produce more money for the government by stimulating higher earnings by corporations and workers…” (p.173).
Similarly, high officials during the Bush era have also have been quoted saying that tax cuts, via faster growth, lead to higher tax revenues:
• President George W. Bush : “The best way to get more revenues in the Treasury is not raise taxes, slowing down the economy, it’s cut taxes to create more economic growth. That’s how you get more money into the U.S. Treasury.” — July 24, 2003.
• OMB Director Joshua Bolten, press conference July 2003; & WSJ, Dec. 10, 2003
• Majority Leader Tom DeLay: “We, as a matter of philosophy, understand that when you cut taxes the economy grows, and revenues to the government grow.” NYT, 3/31/04.
• Treasury Secretary John Snow, Congressional testimony, Feb. 7, 2006: “Lower tax rates are good for the economy and a growing economy is good for Treasury receipts.”
• CEA Chair Ed Lazear, press conference 2/12/07, “revenues have come in…higher than we predicted…because the economy has grown at a rate higher than we predicted…[T]he tax cuts…[were] at least in part responsible for making the economy grow.”
Most leading Republican economists who served as chief economic advisers to Presidents Reagan and Bush during their tax cutting frenzies, however, do not subscribe to the Laffer Hypothesis, and did not compromise their beliefs while in office. Three examples:
• Martin Feldstein: “I objected therefore to those supply-siders like Arthur Laffer who argued that a 30 percent across-the-board tax cut would also be self-financing because of the resulting increase in incentives to work.”3/
• Glenn Hubbard: “Although the economy grows in response to tax reductions… it is unlikely to grow so much that lost tax revenue is completely recovered by the higher level of economic activity.”4/
• Greg Mankiw: “Subsequent history failed to confirm Laffer’s conjecture that lower tax rates would raise tax revenue. When Reagan cut taxes after he was elected, the result was less tax revenue, not more.” 5/
1/ Feldstein, American Economic Policy in the 1980s (U. Chicago Press) 1994, p.21.
2/ Regan, For the Record (St. Martin’s Press: New York) 1988, (p.214).
3/ American Economic Policy in the 1980s ( U. Chicago Press) 1994, p.24 .
4/ Economic Report of the President (Government Printing Office) 2003, p.57-58.
5/ Principles of Economics (Dryden) 1998, p. 166.
I thought it would be useful to get all this into the record, since some observers have claimed that Reagan and Bush never subscribed to the Laffer hypothesis, while others have inaccurately accused Feldstein, Hubbard and Mankiw of selling out on this score.