Monday, September 19, 2011

The Great Macroeconomic Policy Debate - How to restore growth?

The biggest macroeconomic challenge now is to manage a recovery from the stubbornly persistent economic slowdown. But a fierce ideological battle is on about what strategy is required to achieve economic recovery.

Everyone agrees that across both US and large parts of Europe, household, bank, and government balance sheets are suffering from huge debt over-hang. As households cut back on consumption and banks refuse to lend, businesses are postponing investments. The high unemployment rates show no signs of coming down and the economies remain stuck at the trough, far longer than the aftermath of previous recessions. Governments, the only other agency capable of engineering a turn-around, are faced with huge sovereign debts and battered fiscal positions. With interest rates at zero bound and even extraordinary quantitative easing measures already having been tried out, monetary policy appears to have limited traction. So what is the way out?

Conservatives are unambiguous in their advocacy of fiscal austerity and placing deficit reduction at the center of the macroeconomic agenda. They fear about the dangers of inflation taking hold and bond-market yields rising. They claim that the fiscal and monetary expansion of the last decade or so has produced several excesses that need to be wrung out before any meaningful economic recovery can begin. To this extent they advocate immediate re-balancing of public finances with policies to cut government expenditures, raise revenues (albeit without raising taxes), and carry out structural reforms.

They admit that while this will generate some short-term pain, it will be for the long-term good. They argue that this will generate "contractionary expansion", restoring market (business, investor, and consumer) confidence and shaping expectations and thereby encouraging business investments. See Robert Barro (academician), Stephen King (Business), and Wolfgang Schauble (politicians) advocating austerity and fiscal consolidation over expansion.

Liberals differ and propose further fiscal and monetary expansion as the only way out of this mess. The argue that the high persistent unemployment rates should be the central focus of policy makers. They point to historical evidence from US in 1930s and recently from Japan, to argue that unless governments undertake aggressive Keynesian stimulus spending and unconventional monetary expansion, the economy risks being stuck at the bottom for a long time.

They also point to the evident inability and reluctance of businesses to invest in such uncertain and weak environments, especially that of the job-creating but credit constrained small businesses. They see government spending as the only source of generating additional aggregate demand. They also argue that the ultra-low interest rates provide an excellent opportunity for governments to invest in infrastructure and other long-term spending so that the platform for longer-term growth is laid at the cheapest cost. They see little evidence of government spending crowding out private borrowing, inflation emerging as a concern anytime soon, or bond-markets catching cold. See Martin Wolf (Journalist), Mark Zandi (Business), Adam Posen (policy maker) and Dani Rodrik (academician) advocating expansionary policies.

There are also some others who have refrained from taking an explicit position, preferring to suggest specific measures. Some like Ken Rogoff have rightly argued in favor of policies that directly address the issue of cleaning up household and bank balance sheets. To this extent they advocate inflating away debts with a slightly higher inflation target, something which Olivier Blanchard, the IMF Chief Economist too had advocated earlier. However, the efficacy of higher inflation targeting has been questioned on credible enough grounds by Raghuram Rajan.

Interestingly, both sides invoke the magisterial historical examination of sovereign debt crisis, induced by various factors including banking collapses, by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. Conservatives point to their finding that high-levels of growth dampen growth. Liberals point to their findings about the deep nature of recessions that follow banking collapses and argue that government support therefore is essential for expediting recovery.

All these views carry considerable ideological baggage and are evidently constrained by the need to accommodate their respective ideological predilections. Warts and all, the main issue is about which mixture of policies would be most effective in enabling a sustained recovery. An objective assessment reveals inconsistencies or practical difficulties with both sides.

The problem with the conservatives' position is that if all the actors - governments, businesses, financial institutions, and households - are badly constrained, then where would the thrust for recovery come from? Their argument is that debt restructuring and the dynamics that get generated could restore market confidence and thereby pull the economy up the recovery path. But, given the depth of the problems, will it carry the momentum required to pull the economy out? Even traditionally conservative institutions like the IMF have raised serious doubts about fiscal austerity arguing that it could hurt incomes and job prospects. Further, the experience in the current recession with such policies is hardly encouraging.

As several estimates of growth required to bring unemployment in the US to normal levels and also bridge the yawning output gap show, the scale - magnitude and time - of growth required to restore normalcy in the medium term is substantial. In the absence of a strong engine or anchor, what will be the source of this growth? The justifiable fear then is that the recovery process could go on for years.

The fundamental premise of the liberals' argument is that it is necessary to do everything possible to pull the economy out of recession. They fear, based on historical precedent, that in the absence of aggressive expansion, the unemployment problem will assume structural nature and become a socio-economic problem, and a lost decade will be inevitable. I am inclined to believe that this fear too has strong justifications. However, some of the liberals policy measures are not fully supported by fact and appear to based more on hope than objective considerations.

Their hope is that aggressive fiscal and monetary actions will buy enough time for the markets to repair battered balance sheets of all parties and set the stage for a sustainable recovery. But what if it does not? The trillions of dollars so far spent on fiscal and monetary stimulus in the US had not had the expected impact (there could be a counterfactual problem here). What is the certainty that more rounds of stimulus will work? More critically, it is possible that the amount of stimulus required to make any meaningful dent is so large as to make it fiscally and politically impossible. In the circumstances, expansionary policies would be merely throwing money down the drain.

So, if the fears of inaction appear well-justified, and the possible policy alternatives are fraught with deep uncertainty, then are the developed economies set to suffer a long and tortuous period of restructuring, high unemployment and low growth? Is this the inevitable cost of the excesses that got built-up over the past decade or so? Is it desirable to have a medium-term period of de-leveraging that is necessary to wring out the excesses and distortions, rebalance balance sheets, and achieve normalcy? In the meantime, is it appropriate if public policy refrains from anything proactive (either expansionary stimulus or austerity) and confines itself to the provision of a basic minimum social safety to those worst affected by the economic weakness?

Unfortunately this approach too appears untenable. It presupposes a longer period of high unemployment rates and economic weakness. However, there are widespread concerns about its long-term impact on the labour force itself. Longer the people stay unemployed, greater the difficulty to rejoin the workforce. Skills will atrophy and productivity will decline. The socio-economic impact of this will be pernicious. The long-term impact on America's labour force and the economy in general will be damaging. See also this excellent study by Alan Krueger and Andreas Mueller.

Then there is also the danger of Japan. That country ahs been stuck in the trough for nearly two decades now and no end appears in sight. Though there are considerable dis-similarities, there are exists striking similarities - similar asset crashes, huge public debts, aging work-force, and possibly a nominal zero-interest liquidity trap. The magnitude of the downside associated with these risks are so huge that not doing anything proactive appears unwise.

In view of all the aforementioned, and given the extremity risks, inactivity may not be desirable. But there is no clarity on which strategy is most effective in stimulating a recovery. In the circumstances, the only alternative may be to throw everything at the problem and hope that some mixture of policies does enough to put the economy in the recovery path.

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