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
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
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.