Archive for March, 2012

Mar 30 2012

Does expansionary fiscal policy “pay for itself”?

A theory of fiscal policy: Self-sustaining stimulus | The Economist

Expansionary fiscal policy is a tool governments often turn to when the economy is facing high unemployment and sluggish or negative economic growth. Cutting taxes and increasing government spending can contribute to the overall demand in the economy and thereby lead to job creation and economic growth.

One of the oldest arguments against stimulus, however, is that which says when a government borrows money to pay for such a policy, it can lead to a decrease in private investment and a decrease in future demand as the higher level of debt must be paid back in the future. Short-term stimulus, therefore, is counter-productive since any debts incurred must be paid back in the future, leading to lower levels of spending and therefore higher unemployment sometime down the road.

The crowding-out effect of fiscal policy is explained in detail in the following video from The Economics Classroom:

A recent study by two leading American economists provides an argument against this view of the crowding-out effect of fiscal policy:

In a new paper* written with Brad DeLong of the University of California, Berkeley, Mr Summers, now at Harvard after a stint as Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser, says that in the odd circumstances America faces today temporary stimulus “may actually be self-financing”…

Mr DeLong and Mr Summers are careful to say stimulus almost never pays for itself. When the economy is near full employment, deficits crowd out private spending and investment. In a recession the central bank will respond to fiscal stimulus by keeping interest rates higher than they would otherwise be. Both effects mean that in normal times the fiscal “multiplier”—the amount by which output rises for each dollar of government spending or tax cuts—is probably close to zero.

The “multiplier” referred to here is what economist refer to as the Keynesian spending multiplier, which is based on the theory that any increase in spending in an economy (say, through a new government spending package), will lead to further increases in spending (as households feel more confident and firms start to hire workers again), therefore the final change in national income resulting from a fiscal policy will be greater than the initial change in spending itself. This multiplier effect has formed the basis of the argument for expansionary fiscal policy since Keynes articulated it in the 1930’s.

The multiplier effect is explained in detail in the following video lesson:

If the multiplier is ZERO, there is no point in engaging in expansionary fiscal policies since there will be no additional increase in output as a government goes into debt to pay for a tax cut or an increase in spending. In the US today, argue Summers and Delong, the multiplier is probably not zero. Additionally, crowding-out is unlikely to occur.

Such constraints are not present now (meaning in the United States in 2012). Investment and demand are deeply depressed and the central bank, having cut interest rates to zero, is not about to raise them. The multiplier is higher than usual as a result…

Basically, Summers and Delong are trying to argue that the US government should engage in another round of fiscal stimulus, to offer additional support to the economy beyond 2009’s “Obama stimulus” and the current bill being debated in Washington, the American Jobs Act, a $470 billion tax cut and spending bill aimed at keeping unemployment from rising in America.

On one side of this debate are those like Summers and Delong who argue fiscal stimulus can pay for itself since it can leads to a larger increase in GDP than the increase in the government’s budget deficit needed to finance the stimulus. On the other side are those “deficit hawks” who believe that any increase in government debt will lead to a fall in current and future aggregate demand from the private sector, and therefore expansionary fiscal policies will just be crowded out by declining private sector spending.

By understanding the circumstances in which crowding-out is most likely and unlikely to occur, we should be able to make a more informed decision about future fiscal policy decisions. As these two economists argue, and as I have tried to present in this post and in a previous post A Closer Look at the Crowding-out Effect, today’s economy provides policy-makers with the perfect opportunity to stimulate aggregate demand by increasing the deficit and providing the US economy with the boost in demand it needs to get America back to full employment.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is crowding-out more likely to occur when an economy is already producing at or near its full employment level of output than when an economy is in recession?
  2. How are the theories of crowding-out and the multiplier effect used to argue for two different sides in the debate over the use of expansionary fiscal policy?
  3. Why might a government deficit, paid for with borrowed money, lead to an expectation of a future increase in taxes?
  4. Do you believe the government should take action during periods of economic hardship, or should it just get out of the way and let the economy “correct itself”?

One response so far

Mar 23 2012

Understanding Oligopoly Behavior – a Game Theory overview

What makes oligopolistic markets, which are characterized by a few large firms, so different from the other market structures we study in Microeconomics? Unlike in more competitive markets in which firms are of much smaller size and one firm’s behavior has little or no effect on its competitors, an oligopolist that decides to lower its prices, change its output, expand into a new market, offer new services, or adverstise, will have powerful and consequential effects on the profitability of its competitors. For this reason, firms in oligopolistic markets are always considering the behavior of their competitors when making their own economic decisions.

To understand the behavior of non-collusive oligopolists (non-collusive meaning a few firms that do NOT cooperate on output and price), economists have employed a mathematical tool called Game Theory. The assumption is that large firms in competition will behave similarly to individual players in a game such as poker. Firms, which are the “players” will make “moves” (referring to economic decisions such as whether or not to advertise, whether to offer discounts or certain services, make particular changes to their products, charge a high or low price, or any other of a number of economic actions) based on the predicted behavior of their competitors.

If a large firm competing with other large firms understands the various “payoffs” (referring to the profits or losses that will result from a particular economic decision made by itself and its competitors) then it will be better able to make a rational, profit-maximizing (or loss minimizing) decision based on the likely actions of its competitors. The outcome of such a situation, or game, can be predicted using payoff matrixes. Below is an illustration of a game between two coffee shops competing in a small town.

In the game above, both SF Coffee and Starbuck have what is called a dominant strategy. Regardless of what its competitor does, both companies would maximize their outcome by advertising. If SF coffee were to not advertise, Starbucks will earn more profits ($20 vs $10) by advertising. If SF coffee were to advertise, Starbucks will earn more profits ($12 vs $10) by advertising. The payoffs are the same given both options for SF Coffee. Since both firms will do best by advertising given the behavior of its competitor, both firms will advertise. Clearly, the total profits earned are less when both firms advertise than if they both did NOT advertise, but such an outcome is unstable because the incentive for both firms would be to advertise. We say that advertise/advertise is a “Nash Equilibrium since neither firm has an incentive to vary its strategy at this point, since less profits will be earned by the firm that stops advertising.

As illustrated above, the tools of Game Theory, including the “payoff matrix”, can prove helpful to firms deciding how to respond to particular actions by their competitors in oligopolistic markets. Of course, in the real world there are often more than two firms in competition in a particular market, and the decisions that they must make include more than simply to advertise or not. Much more complicated, multi-player games with several possible “moves” have also been developed and used to help make tough economic decisions a little easier in the world of competition.

Game theory as a mathematical tool can be applied in realms beyond oligopoly behavior in Economics.  In each of the videos below, game theory can be applied to predict the behavior of different “players”. None of the videos portray a Microeconomic scenario like the one above, but in each case a payoff matrix can be created and behavior can be predicted based on an analysis of the incentives given the player’s possible behaviors.

Assignment: Watch each of the five videos below. For each one, create a payoff matrix showing the possible “plays” and the possible “payoffs” of the game portrayed in the video. Predict the outcome of each game based on your understanding of incentives and the assumption that humans act rationally and in their own self-interest.

“Batman – the Dark Night” – the Joker’s ferry game:

“Princess Bride” – where’s the poison?:

“Golden Balls” – split or steal:

“The Trap” – the delicate balance of terror

“Murder by Numbers” – the interrogation

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is oligopoly behavior more like a game of poker than the behavior of firms in more competitive markets?
  2. What does it mean that firms in oligopolistic markets are “inter-dependent” of one another?
  3. Among the videos above, which games ended in the way that your payoff matrix and understanding of human behavior and rational decision making would have predicted?
  4. How often did the equilibrium outcomes according to your analysis of the payoff matrices correspond with the socially optimal outcome (i.e. the one where total payoffs for all players are maximized or the total losses minimized)?

11 responses so far

Mar 06 2012

Planet Money Podcast – “China’s Giant Pool of Money”

NPR’s Planet Money team did a great podcast last week about China’s accumulation of US dollars from its large trade surplus with the United States. This story offers a great illustration of the theories I introduced in my recent video lesson, The Relationship between the Current Account Balance and Exchange Rates

Listen to the podcast, watch the video lesson, and respond to the discussion questions that follow.



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Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does the Chinese Central Bank possess over $3 trillion of foreign exchange reserves?
  2. What does the Chinese Central Bank do with the vast majority of the money it earns from the sale of its exports that it does NOT spend on US goods? Why not keep this money in cash?
  3. Why does the Chinese Central Bank manage the value of its currency, the RMB? Why not let the exchange rate be determined by the free market?
  4. As the RMB is slowly strengthened against the dollar, who are the winners and losers? What impact should a stronger RMB have on the balance of trade between China and the US?

 

One response so far