Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Talking Past Each Other: A Prediction for the Near Future

Quick - don't scroll down and read anything in this post. Answer this question in your head: did government spending make up a large or small share of GDP growth in the impressive 5.9% annualized growth rate for the fourth quarter of 2009?

Did you say it made up a large share? Sure - that seems to make sense. We have a liberal in office now. Keynes is cool again (yes he is - I don't care what you say about my extracurricular interests!). We have hundreds of billions in that stimulus package and over a trillion dollars in deficits. Any growth we see is because the government is running the printing presses 24/7 and kicking the can down the road for dealing with our real problems, right?

Wrong. Government spending growth in the fourth quarter was basically zero - actually slightly negative. What's going on here? What's happened is that Americans have systematically forgotten that they live in a federal republic, where a great deal of the work of government is done at the state and local government. While the federal government has been hanging lose, state governments have been tightening up. Keynes may be popular again, but Keynesian policy is for all intents and purposes non-existent. Any attempt at Keynesian fiscal policy is being neutralized by the state governments. That doesn't mean the federal stimulus is bad. We'd be in much, much worse shape without the stimulus. But taken as a whole, the American polity isn't doing any public stimulus right now.

Does that sound weird to you? That's exactly what I'm worried about. When people start arguing over whether fiscal stimulus works or not, and about how macroeconomic policy should be done in the future they're going to point to the easiest number - the federal deficit - and declare that it is largely impotent, not even considering that the federal government is not the only game in town. And in the rare instances that state budgets are discussed, the catchy phrase "fifty Herbert Hoovers" will inevitably be brought up, and inevitably the argument will get redirected toward "well Hoover was actually a closet Keynesian - Amity Shlaes told me so", etc. etc. - and it will turn into a revisionist history debate about Hoover and not the issue at hand: namely, that there is effectively no fiscal policy going on in the United States right now.

Stephen Gordon (HT: Mark Thoma) provides this comparison of the breakdown of Canadian GDP growth and American GDP growth for the fourth quarter of 2009:

As you can see in the second blue bar from the right, most of our GDP growth in the fourth quarter came from restocking inventories. In other words, in early 2009 when businesses were scared of the future, they just sold off their inventories instead of actually producing new goods. That's why output dropped then and so many people were thrown out of work (you don't need that many employees just to sell off inventory). Pretty soon, the inventories are spend down and need to be replenished - that's what happened in the fourth quarter. This is still very good - it still puts people to work - but as Gordon notes, it's a very unbalanced way to grow. What happens in mid 2010 when the inventories are restocked but demand is still tepid? A double-dip recession, that's what. There has been a lot of talk recently about a double-dip recession and this is why (this and the fact that the fiscal stimulus that does exist is going to begin to peter out then).

A stronger stimulus could balance this growth and generate a virtuous cycle of self-sustaining growth. If we had some infrastructure or public works projects, money would go into the hands of workers (consumption) and business (investment) for actual purchases that they have preferences for and place value on. Right now that's not what we're spending on - the people doing the spending right now are store owners who are replenishing their shelves, not business making new machines or households buying new goods. Just store owners stocking empty shelves. That's fine, but nobody seems to be buying anything off those shelves, so what happens next?

At the heart of all of this is the states - specifically the states' ridiculous proclivity for balanced budgets and aversion to borrowing. This is literally a nineteenth century budgeting outlook transposed onto fifty sovereign governments that make up the early 21st century's sole superpower. It's absolutely shameful. What's even more shameful is that I think we're largely oblivious to this. We're going to be judging how macroeconomic policy fared without even giving the states a second thought, and all these budget troubles at the state level are only going to convince state governments to be more tight-fisted in the future. What they should be doing is recognizing that there is no point in having a AAA bond rating if you impose borrowing limits on yourself. The market will impose that limit on you. If the market is starting to get nervous about the soundness of your finances, your bond rating will slip, the interest you'll have to pay will increase, or both. Far from taking a responsible, market oriented approach, state governments are willfully ignoring market signals, specifically credit market signals.

This is my prediction for the near future: that we are going to be talking past each other very, very soon. Soon the inventory cycle will run its course and growth will stall again. Unemployment might even increase again, and people are going to be blaming the Obama administration for their big-spending ways. State governors are going to make stump speeches in the fall for Republican candidates declaring how they tightened their belts through all this while Washington acted irresponsibly, so the Democrats must go. They're not even going to realize that macroeconomic fiscal stimulus was virtually non-existent this year, precisely because those state governments tightened their belts. Keynesian fiscal policy will not have been proven a failure - although many people will claim that it was. Yet again, Keynesian fiscal policy will not have been proven a failure because it will never have been tried.

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