Archive for the 'Government' Category

Nov 06 2012

A closer look at the crowding-out effect

To spend or not to spend. That is the question. In order to determine whether or not a government should increase its budget deficit in order to stimulate economic activity in its economy, it is important to determine whether said deficit spending will lead to a net increase in the nation’s GDP or a net decrease in GDP. Obviously, if increasing the debt to pay for a government spending package leads to lower aggregate demand in the economy, then it should not be undertaken. However, if a deficit-financed spending package leads to an overall increase in output and national income, it may be justified.
-
To understand the circumstances under which a government stimulus package will increase or decrease overall output in the economy, we must compare two competing possible impacts of a government stimulus. The multiplier effect of government spending refers to a theory which says that any increase in government spending will lead to further increases in private spending, as households enjoy more income and thus consume more and firms, which earn more revenues due to the government’s increased spending, make new capital investments, contributing to the stimulus provided by government and leading to an overall increase in GDP that exceeds the increase in government spending.
-
The crowding-out effect, on the other hand, refers to the theory that any increase in government spending, when financed by a larger deficit, will lead to a net decrease in private expenditures, as firms and households face higher interest rates due to the governments’ intervention in private financial markets. Government spending will crowd out private spending, thus any increase in spending will be off-set by a decrease in private spending, possibly even reducing overall income in the nation.
-
This post will focus on the second of these effects, and attempt to explain the circumstances under which crowding-out is likely to occur, and those under which it is unlikely to occur.
-
Deficit-financed government spending refers to any policy that increases government expenditures without increasing taxes, or one that reduces taxes without reducing government expenditures. In either case, a government must increase the amount of borrowing it does to pay for the policy, which means governments must borrow from the private sector by issuing new debt in the form of government bonds.
-
When a government must borrow to spend, it has to attract lenders somehow, which may require the government to offer higher rates of return on its bonds. The impact this has on the supply of private savings, which refers to the funds available in commercial banks for lending and borrowing in the private sector, will be negative. In other words, the supply of loanable funds in the private sector will decrease.
-
The graph below shows the market for loanable funds in a nation. The supply curve represents all households and other savers who put their money in private banks, in which they earn a certain interest rate on their savings. The demand for loanable funds represents private borrowers in the nation, who demand funds for investments in capital and technology (firms) and durable goods and real estate investments (households). The demand for loanable funds is inversely related to the real interest rate in the economy, since higher borrowing costs mean less demand for funds to pay for investment and consumption.
-
-
When a government needs to borrow money to pay for its deficit, private savers (represented by Slf above) will find lending money to the government more attractive than saving in private banks, since the relative interest rate on government bonds is likely to rise. This should reduce the supply of loanable funds in the private sector, making them more scarce and driving up borrowing costs to households and firms. This can be seen below:
-
-
In the illustration above, a government’s deficit spending crowds-out private spending, as firms and households find higher interest rates less attractive and thus demand less funds for investment and consumption. Private expenditures fall from Qe to Q1; therefore any increase in economic output resulting from the increase in government spending may be off-set by the fall in private spending. Crowding-out has occurred.
-
Another way to view the crowding-out effect is to think about the impact of increased government borrowing on the demand for loanable funds. Demand represents all borrowers in an economy: households, firms and the government. An increase in public debt requires the government to borrow funds from the private sector, so as the supply of loanable funds fall, the demand will also increase, although not from the private sector, rather from the government. The effect this has can be seen below:
-
 -
In the graph above, both the reduced supply of loanable funds resulting from private savers lending more to the government and the increased demand for loanable funds resulting form the government’s borrowing from the private sector combine to drive the equilibrium interest rate up to IR2. The private quantity demanded now falls from Qe to Qp, while the total amount of funds demanded (from the private sector and the government  now is only Qp+g. This illustration thus shows how an increase in government borrowing crowds out private spending but also leads to an overall decrease in the amount of investment in the economy.
-
Based on the two graphs above, a deficit-financed government spending package will definitely crowd-out private spending to some extent, and in the case of the second graph will even lead to a decrease in overall expenditures in the economy. This analysis could be used to argue against government spending as a way to stimulate economic activity. But this analysis makes some assumptions that may not always be true about a nation’s economy, namely that the equilibrium level of private investment demand and the supply of loanable funds occurs at a positive real interest rate. There are two possibilities that may mean the crowding-out effect does not occur. They are:
  • If the private demand for loanable funds is extraordinarily low, or
  • If the private supply of loanable funds is extraordinarily high.
-
When might these conditions be met? The answer is, during a deep recession. In a recession, household confidence is low, therefore private consumption is low and savings rates tend to rise, increasing the supply of funds in private banks. Also, firms’ expectations about the future tend to be weak, as low inflation or deflation make it unlikely that investments in new capital will provide high rates of return. Home sales are down and consumption of durable goods (which households often finance with borrowing) is depressed. Essentially, during a recession, private demand from borrowers is low and private supply from households is high. If the economy is weak enough, the loanable funds market may even exhibit an equilibrium interest rate that is negative. This could be shown as follows:
 -
 -
Notice that due to the exceedingly low demand and high supply of loanable funds, 0% acts as a price floor in the market. In other words, since interest rates cannot fall below 0%, there will be an excess supply of funds available to the private sector. Such a scenario is known as a liquidity trap. The level of private investment will be very low at only Qd. Banks cannot loan out all their excess reserves, and even though borrowing money is practically free, borrowers aren’t willing to take the risk to invest in capital or assets that may have negative rates of return, a prospect that is not unlikely during a recession.
-
So what happens when government deficit spends during a “liquidity trap”, as seen above? First of all, the government need not offer a very high rate to borrow in such an economy. Private interest rates will be close to zero, so even a 0.1% return on government bonds will attract lenders. So the supply of loanable funds may decrease, and demand may increase, but crowding-out will not occur because there is almost no private investment spending to crowd out! Here’s what happens:
-
 -
Here we see the same shifts in demand and supply for loanable funds as we saw in our first graph, except now there is no increase in the interest rate resulting from the government’s entrance into the market. Since private interest rates stay at 0%, the private quantity of funds demanded for investment remains the same (Qp), while the increased government borrowing leads to an increase in overall spending in the economy from Qp to Qp+g. Rather than crowding-out private spending, the increase in government spending has no impact on households and firms, and leads to a net increase in overall spending in the economy.
-
If the government spends its borrowed funds wisely, it is possible that private spending could be crowded-in, which means that the boost to total output resulting from the fiscal stimulus may increase firm and household confidence and shift the private demand for loanable funds outwards, increasing the level of private investment and consumption, further stimulating economic activity.
-
So what have we shown? We have seen that in a healthy economy, in which households and firms are eager to borrow money to finance their spending, and in which savings rates are not exceedingly high, government borrowing may drive up private interest rates and crowd-out private spending. But during a deep recession, in which consumer spending is depressed and firms are not investing due to uncertainty and savings rates are higher than what is historically normal, an increase in government spending financed by a deficit will have little or no impact on the level of private investment and consumption. In such a case, governments can borrow cheaply (at just above 0%), and increase the overall level of demand in the economy without harming the private sector.
-
Crowding-out is a valid economic theory, but its likelihood of occurring must be evaluated by considering the actual level of output and employment in the economy. In a deflationary setting, in which savings is high and private spending is low, government may have the opportunity to boost demand and stimulate growth without driving up borrowing costs in the private sector and decreasing the level of household and firm expenditures.

8 responses so far

Nov 06 2012

To continue stimulus or to pursue austerity, that is the question

Note: This post was originally published in August of 2010. It is being reposted today to support a lesson on fiscal policy in my year 2 IB Economics class.

In the seemingly endless and currently ongoing debate over the role of the government in the macroeconomy, there are two main camps: Those who think the governments of the developed economies have not done enough to get their economies out of recession, and those who think they have already done too much, and therefore need to start rolling back stimulus and reducing deficits.

At the heart of this debate are the two macroeconomic schools of thought, the  Keynesian demand-side theories and the classical, supply-side theories. Two intellectuals have emerged in the last several years representing the two sides of the macroeconomic debate. On the demand-side, representing the Keynesian school of thought, is 2008 Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Representing the classical, supply-side school of thought is Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson. These two have squared off in many forums over the last three years, Krugman arguing for more and continued fiscal stimulus to prop up and increase demand in the economy, Ferguson arguing for smaller deficits, lower taxes and less government spending to increase private sector confidence and thereby supply in the economy.

During our long summer break the two squared off once again in the aftermath of a G20 meeting in which the governments of several major economies from Europe and North America announced plans to begin rolling back the stimulus spending they embarked on throughout 2008 and 2009. The reason for increased “austerity measures” (policies that reduce the budget deficit and slow the growth of national debt), argue global leaders, is to reduce the chances of more countries experiencing debt crises like that experienced in Greece this spring.

International investors realized earlier this year that Greece’s budget deficits were a much larger percentage of its GDP than previously thought, and very quickly decided that Greek government bonds were an unsafe investment. Almost overnight the cost of borrowing in Greece shot up above 20%, bringing investment in the economy to a halt and forcing the government to cut its budget, leading to higher unemployment and reduced social benefits for the people of Greece.  If investors were to look at the growing budget deficits in other developed countries and  then suddenly lose faith in other government’s ability to pay back their debts, then a similar crisis could occur in much larger economies, including the UK, Germany and the United States. Hence these country’s apparent desire to begin reducing deficits and rolling back stimulus spending; measures that may just plunge these economies into an even deeper recession than that which they have experienced over the last two years.

The videos below show the leading intellectuals on both sides of the stimulus/austerity debate presenting their arguments. Below each video are discussion questions to help guide your understanding of their views. Watch the videos and respond to the discussion questions in the comment section below.

Video 1 - Krugman argues for continued stimulus:

YouTube Preview Image

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the two “profoundly different views of economics” that are being tested as governments begin rolling back the fiscal stimulus packages of the last two years?
  2. What are three characteristics of an economy in a “depression” according to Krugman?
  3. What is “budget austerity” and why does Krugman think this should not be the first priority of policymakers in the G20 nations?
  4. Why is deflation dangerous according to Krugman?
  5. What is the additional annual cost to the US government of borrowing and spending an additional trillion dollars now? What is the potential additional benefit of more stimulus?

Video 2 - Ferguson argues for austerity and “fiscal regime change”:

YouTube Preview Image

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might the US have to pass spending cuts and tax increases to maintain its “credibility in international bond markets”?
  2. Why would fiscal tightening “choke off the recovery”?
  3. How is the financial crisis in Europe a warning to the US?
  4. How could the “costs” exceed the “benefits” of deficit financed expansionary fiscal policy.
  5. Ferguson proposes a new type of policy that “boosts confidence”. Why will expansionary fiscal and monetary policies fail if private sector confidence remains depressed?

6 responses so far

Nov 01 2012

Has the Baby Market Failed?

The tools of economics can be applied to almost any social institution, even the decision of individuals in society whether or not to have children. All over the rich world today, potential parents have decided against having babies, the result being lower fertility rates across much of Europe and the richer countries in Asia, including Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Lower fertility rates have some advantages, such as less pressure on the country’s natural resources, but the disadvantages generally outweigh the benefits.

The story below, from NPR, explains in detail some of the consequences of declining fertility rates in the rich world, and identifies some of the ways governments have begun to try to increase the fertility rates.

The problem of declining fertility rates can be analyzed using simple supply and demand analysis. In the graph below, we see that the marginal private cost of having children in rich countries is very high. The costs of having children include not only the monetary costs of raising the child, but the opportunity costs of forgone income of the parent who has to quit his or her job to raise the child or the explicit costs of child care, which in some countries can cost thousands of dollars per month. Marginal private cost corresponds with the supply of babies, since private individuals will only choose to have children if the perceived benefit of having a baby exceeds the explicit and implicit costs of child-rearing.

The marginal private benefit of having babies is downward sloping. This reflects the fact that if parents have just one or two children, the benefit of these children is relatively high, due to the emotional and economic contributions a first and second child will  bring to parents’ lives. But the more babies a couple has, the less additional benefit each successive child provides the parents. This helps explain why in an era of increased gender equality, families with three or more children are incredibly rare. The diminishing marginal benefit experienced by individual couples applies to society as a whole as well, therefore the market above could represent either the costs and benefits of individual parents or of society at large.

Notice, however, that that the marginal social benefit of having babies is greater than the marginal private benefit. In economics terminology, there are positive externalities of having babies; in other words, additional children provide benefits to society beyond those emotional and economic benefits enjoyed by the parents. The podcast explained some of these external, social benefits of having children: a larger workforce for firms to employ in the future, more people paying taxes, allowing the government to provide more public goods, more workers supporting the non-working retirees of a nation, and more competitive wages in the global market for goods and services. Higher fertility rates, in short, result in more economic growth and higher incomes for a nation.

When individuals decide how many children to have, they make this decision based solely on their private costs and benefits, since the external benefits of having more babies are enjoyed by society, but not necessarily by the parents themselves. Therefore, left entirely alone, the “free market” will produce fewer babies (Qe) than is socially optimal (Qso).

So what are Western governments doing about low fertility rates? The podcast identifies several strategies being employed to narrow the gap between Qe and Qso. In Australia households receive a $1000 subsidy for each baby born. In Germany mothers receive a year of paid leave from work. Here in Switzerland mothers get three months of government paid leave and $200 a month subsidy to help pay for child care after that. Each of these government policies represents a “baby subsidy”. In the graph above, we can see the intended effect of these policies. By making it more affordable to have children, governments are hoping to reduce the marginal private cost to parents, encouraging them to have more children, which on a societal level should increase the number of babies born so that it is closer to the socially optimal level (Qso).

Unfortunately, as the podcast explains, it appears that parents are relatively unresponsive to the monetary incentives governments are providing. This can be explained by the fact that the private demand (MPB) for babies is highly inelastic. Even if the “cost” of having a baby falls due to government subsidies, parents across the Western world are reluctant to increase the number of babies they have.

As we can see in the graph above, a subsidy for babies reduces the marginal private cost of child-rearing to parents. But the MPB curve, representing the private demand for babies, is highly inelastic, meaning the large subsidy has minimal effect on the quantity of babies produced. Without the subsidy, Qe babies would be born, while with the subsidy only Qs are born, which is closer to the socially optimal number of births at Qso, but still short of the number of births society truly needs.

The “market for babies” in rich countries is failing. Because of the positive externalities of having children, parents are currently under-producing this “merit good”. One of two things must happen to resolve this market failure. Either the marginal private costs of having babies must fall by much more than the government subsidies for babies have allowed, or the marginal private benefit must increase. Either larger subsidies are needed, or some moral revival aimed at encouraging potential parents to consider both the private and social benefits of having children when making their decisions.

Don’t you love economics? We make everything seem so logical! And like they say, it all comes down to supply and demand!

Discussion Questions:

  1. What makes low fertility rates among parents in the rich world an example of a “market failure”?
  2. What are the primary reasons fertility rates are lower in the rich world than they are in the developing world?
  3.  What are the economic consequences of lower birth rates? What are the environmental consequences of lower birth rates? Should government be trying to increase the number of babies born?
  4. Why have government incentives for parents to have more babies failed to achieve the fertility rates that government wish they would achieve?
  5. Do you believe that government can create strong enough incentives for parents to have more babies? If not, what will become of the populations of Western Europe and the rich countries of Asia given today’s low fertility rates? Should we be worried?

14 responses so far

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

Jan 29 2012

A History of Public Goods

One question that often comes up in my class discussions of market failure and public goods is “Why can’t we just have a global government that intervenes to correct those market failures with global impacts?” The global market failures my students get so worked up about are those arising from common access resources, such as deforestation, over-fishing and global warming, those resulting from information asymmetry, such the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, and the global inequality in the distribution of income and economic opportunity.

What I haven’t ever really considered or explained to my students (until now) is the history of public goods. In the column below, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times’,  tells the history of public goods, which as it turns out, is intimately tied to the history of the modern state as we know it. This column should become a must read for all economic students studying market failure.

From The World’s Hunger for Pulbic GoodsJanuary 24, 2012, Financial Times

What… is a public good? In the jargon, a public good is “non-excludable” and “non-rivalrous”. Non-excludable means that one cannot prevent non-payers from enjoying benefits. Non-rivalrous means that one person’s enjoyment is not at another person’s expense. National defence is a classic public good. If a country is made safe from attack everybody benefits, including residents who make no contribution. Again, enjoyment of the benefits does not reduce that of others. Similarly, if an economy is stable, everybody has the benefit and nobody can be deprived of it.

Public goods are an example of what economists call “market failure”. The point is generalised in the language of “externalities” – consequences, either good or bad, not taken into account by decision-makers. In such cases, Adam Smith’s invisible hand does not work as one might like. Some way needs to be found to shift behaviour; public goods usually involve some state provision; externalities usually involve a tax, a subsidy or some change in property rights…

The history of civilisation is a history of public goods. The more complex the civilisation the greater the number of public goods that needed to be provided. Ours is far and away the most complex civilisation humanity has ever developed. So its need for public goods – and goods with public goods aspects, such as education and health – is extraordinarily large. The institutions that have historically provided public goods are states. But it is unclear whether today’s states can – or will be allowed to – provide the goods we now demand.

The story of public goods goes back to the very beginning of states, which were the result of the agricultural revolution. The latter made populations vulnerable to… “roving bandits”. The answer was the “stationary bandit” – the state. It was not a perfect answer – answers almost never are. But it worked well enough to permit substantial increases in population. The state provided defence in return for taxation. The empires – Rome or China – enjoyed economies of scale in providing security. When Rome collapsed, security was privatised by local gangsters, at huge social cost: this we now call feudalism.

The industrial revolution expanded the activities of the state in innumerable ways. This was fundamentally because of the needs of the economy itself. Markets could not, on their own, provide an educated population or large-scale infrastructure, defend intellectual property, protect the environment and public health, and so on. Governments felt obliged – or delighted – to intervene, as suppliers and regulators, or subsidisers and taxers. In addition to this, the arrival of democracy increased the demand for redistribution, partly in response to the insecurity of workers. For all these reasons, the modern state, vastly more potent than any that existed before, has exploded in the range and scale of its activities. Will this be reversed? No. Does it work well? That is a good question.

Yet consider where we are now. The impact of humanity is, like the economy, increasingly global. Economic stability is a global public good. So, in the era of nuclear weapons, is security. So, in important respects, are control of organised crime, counterfeiting, piracy and, above all, pollution. So, even, is the supply of education or health. What happens anywhere affects everybody – and increasingly so. Unless there is a global economic collapse, an increasing number of the public goods demanded by our civilisation will be global or have global aspects.

Our states cannot supply them on their own. They need to co-operate. Traditionally, the least bad way of securing such co-operation is through some sort of leadership. The leader acts despite free riders. As a result, some global public goods have been adequately – if imperfectly – supplied. But as we move again into a multipolar era, the ability of any country to supply such leadership will be limited. Even in the unipolar days, it only worked where the hegemon wanted to provide the particular public good in question.

I started with economic stability, because the big surprise of the past few years is just how difficult it has proved to provide even this. The point I finish with is far broader. Ours is an ever more global civilisation that demands the provision of a wide range of public goods. The states on which humanity depends to provide these goods, from security to management of climate, are unpopular, overstretched and at odds. We need to think about how to manage such a world. It is going to take extraordinary creativity.

 

3 responses so far

Next »