Sunday, January 25, 2009

How Effective Might the Stimulus Plan Be?

The Obama stimulus plan totals $825 billion. This plan is a combination of spending plans and tax relief. The dollar amount needed to be large, we are told, because the American economy is tanking and a lot of effort needs to be exerted to stop the decline and re-establish positive growth once again. Of course, we were told similar things when the legislation relating to the TARP was introduced. We have also been told that the number needs to be large because we don’t really know how much stimulus will be needed to jump-start the economy so we need to throw a lot of cash at the problem in hopes that the effort will be large enough to do the job.

The problem is…how much extra spending will $825 billion of stimulus create in the economy. In the simple Keynesian model this $825 billion will generate something more than $825 billion as new investment and new spending is created from the initial stimulus. The word going around is that the Obama economists are using a “multiplier” of 1.5. Thus, $825 billion in new spending and tax cuts will actually result in another $412.5 billion in spending raising the total affect on the economy to $1.2375 trillion…a hefty sum.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal printed an opinion piece by Harvard economics professor Bob Barro (
who argued that the “multiplier” might be something different from 1.5 and might even be as low as zero! Barro contended, supported by his research, that even in times that are most favorable for the multiplier to be toward the higher end of this range, war times, the multiplier comes out to be no higher than 0.8. That is a stimulus plan that totaled $825 billion, could only expect to produce about $660 of real Gross Domestic Product not $1.2375 trillion. But, he adds, this estimate of 0.8 is probably optimistic.

Why would the final impact of the stimulus package be less than the amount of the stimulus package itself? There are several reasons. For one, the government expenditures could be expected to be a substitute for private investment or other private expenditures. Furthermore, whether or not the tax cuts are spent is another question. In the recent Bush43 tax rebate program much of the rebate money either went into savings or it went to pay off existing debt. In a poll released in the middle of last week, pollsters found that, on average, people would apply 70% to 75% of any tax relief from the stimulus plan to savings or to paying off existing debt. So there are arguments…and empirical support…for the contention that the “multiplier” may not be as high as 1.5 and might realistically be below 1.0.

The threat to save or pay back debt is real…not only for consumers…but also for businesses. Some economists who have studied recessions and depressions talk about a period of time called a debt/deflation. In periods like these the future looks bleak…and economic units…consumers and businesses…try to pull back and restructure themselves on a sounder financial basis. That is, they want to reduce the leverage that is on their balance sheet and get away from owing money. The first concern has to do with being unemployed or faced with going out of business…economic units want cash or, at least, near-cash items so as to be able to bridge a period when cash inflows might be low. And, if there is a possibility of deflation, people want to reduce the amount of debt on their balance sheets because the real value of debt and debt payments increase when prices are falling.

Some “Keynesians” have tried to incorporate these ideas about debt/deflation into their economic models. Hyman Minsky was one of the most prominent economists to explicitly discuss the impact of the capital markets on economic expansions and contractions. However, most of the empirical models used by policy makers do not take account of capital market effects on economic activity. (For a discussion of the economic model used for policy forecasting in the Federal Reserve see “Ben Bernanke’s Fed: The Federal Reserve After Greenspan” by Ethan S. Harris, Harvard Business School Press.) It is hard to contemplate “multipliers” as high as 1.5 if one considers these capital market issues.

For people to spend or borrow (if they could borrow) they need to have at least a somewhat optimistic view of the future (even for the possibility of inflation) to maintain or increase spending by either reducing savings or by borrowing. The obvious psychological impact hoped for from the stimulus package is that economic units will have enough confidence in the future or will even be willing to borrow and pay back loans with cheaper real dollars to keep spending or even increase spending. The Obama team is intending to use the rest of the TARP funds released by the Congress ($350 billion) to get people borrowing again.

Of course the concern about achieving this latter effect is the concern over the creation or the re-enforcement of moral hazard in the economy. If the government continues to “bail out” not only financial institutions but businesses, families, and other economic units, these economic units will continue to take on more and more risk in the future because they know that the government will supply a safety net to protect people from their foolish bets. The economists who argue from the viewpoint of the debt/deflation hypothesis contend that sooner or later the economy will take on so much debt that the debt/deflation cannot stop until people finally work off their extreme financial imbalances and return to more normal debt loads and positive amounts of saving. Some of these economists believe that this time has arrived and the economy cannot be turned around until economic units have worked off their excessive debt burdens and taken on a more conservative view of their economic future.

To get a zero multiplier (see the Barro article and Barro’s textbook “Macroeconomics: A Modern Approach” published by Thomson South-Western) one must argue that economic units will anticipate the increased real economic costs, real future taxes, or inflation that result from the way in which the stimulus package is financed and re-arrange their economic and financial activities to be able to cover the future government levies. A zero multiplier means that for every $1.00 the government puts into the stimulus plan, economic units will remove $1.00 from the spending stream. Thus, the $825 billion stimulus plan would increase real Gross Domestic Product by…ZERO DOLLARS!

What is the alternative to the type of stimulus plan proposed by the Obama administration? Barro argues that things must be done to encourage business commitment and innovation. His favorite idea is to eliminate the federal corporate income tax. If people are to be put back to work again…businesses must be hiring. In order to do this the energy and the foresight of the American business community must be put back to work again. The concern with massive public-works programs is that they will just substitute for the innovation and entrepreneurial leadership that still exists in the country and could produce real growth but needs to have the appropriate incentives.

So, what will be the impact of the Obama stimulus plan? You take your guess…I’ll take mine. My guess is that the multiplier is less than 1.0 and is maybe as low as 0.4. A reason for this pessimistic view of the multiplier is that we are at the stage where people/families and businesses finally have to fully restructure their finances to get balance sheets back into some form of conservative position. After many, many years of chasing dreams through betting on rising inflation with increased leverage and new financial instruments…the economy finally needs a break…needs to catch its breath and settle down for awhile.

I could be wrong. The American government could throw so much money at the economy that rising inflation and increased leverage becomes “the thing” again. If such is the case…then we are just postponing for another time, dealing with the monster that the government has created in the first place.

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