How to ensure stimulus today, austerity tomorrow

March 25th, 2012

March 25, 2012

Economic forecasters divide into two groups. There are those who cannot know the future but think they can – and then there are those who recognise their inability to know the future. Major shifts in the economy are rarely forecast and often not fully recognised until they have been under way for some time. So judgments about the US economy have to be tentative. What can be said is that for the first time in five years a resumption of growth significantly above the economy’s potential now appears a substantial possibility. Put differently, after years when growth was more likely to surprise below expectations than above them, the risks are now very much two-sided.

As winter turned to spring in 2010 and 2011, many observers thought they detected evidence that the economy had decisively turned, only to be disappointed a few months later. Several considerations suggest that this time may be different. Employment growth has been running well ahead of population growth for some time now. The stock market level is higher and its expected volatility lower than at any time since 2007, suggesting that the uncertainty weighing on business has declined. Consumers who deferred purchases of cars and other durable goods have created pent-up demand that now seems to be emerging. At last the housing market seems to be stabilising. For years now, the rate of new families setting up households has been well below normal as more and more young people have moved in with their parents. At some point they will set out on their own, creating a virtuous circle of a stronger housing market, more “family formation” that boosts demand, further improvement in housing conditions and so on. And, assuming there is no punitive regulation, innovation in mobile information technology, social networking and newly discovered oil and natural gas seems likely to drive investment and job creation.

True, the risks of high oil prices, further problems in Europe and financial fallout from anxiety about future deficits remain salient. However, unlike the situation in 2010 and 2011, these risks are probably already priced into markets and factored into outlooks for consumer and business spending. There has already been a significant rise in oil prices. Europe’s situation is hardly resolved but is very unlikely to deteriorate as much in the next months as it did last year. And market participants report great alarm about the deficit situation. So even modestly good news in any of these areas could drive upward revisions in current forecasts.

What are the implications for macroeconomic policy? Such recovery as we are enjoying is less a reflection of the American economy’s natural resilience than of the extraordinary steps that both fiscal and monetary policy makers have taken to offset private sector deleveraging – a process that is far from complete. A convalescing patient who does not finish their course of treatment takes a grave risk. So too the most serious risk to recovery over the next few years is no longer financial strain or external shocks, but that policy will shift too quickly away from its emphasis on maintaining adequate demand, towards a concern with traditional fiscal and monetary prudence.

On even a pessimistic reading of the economy’s potential, unemployment remains 2 percentage points below normal levels, employment remains 5m jobs below potential levels and gross domestic product remains close to $1tn short of its potential. Even if the economy creates 300,000 jobs a month and grows at 4 per cent, it would take several years to restore normal conditions. So a lurch back this year towards the kind of policies that are appropriate in normal times would be quite premature.

Indeed, recent research suggests that, by slowing investment and increasing long-term employment, such policies could seriously damage the economy’s long-term performance. Brad Delong and I argued in a recent paper that premature and excessive fiscal contraction could even, by shrinking the economy, exacerbate budget problems in the long run.

How then to respond to valid concerns about fiscal sustainability, excessive credit creation and the time it may take to return to normality in a world where policy credibility is essential? The right approach is to use contingent commitments – policies that commit to action to normalise conditions, but only when certain thresholds are crossed. So, for example, it might be appropriate for the Federal Reserve to commit to maintain the current Fed Funds rate until some threshold with respect to unemployment or expected inflation is crossed. Commitments to fund infrastructure over many years might include a commitment that a financing mechanism such as a gasoline tax would be triggered when some level of employment or output growth has been achieved for a given interval. Tax reform legislation might propose that new rates be phased in at a pace that would depend on economic performance.

Contingent commitments have the virtue of giving households and businesses clarity as to how policy will play out. In areas where legislation is necessary, they can help to eliminate political uncertainty. They also allow policy makers to make a simultaneous commitment to near-term expansion and medium-term prudence – exactly what we require right now. In a volatile and uncertain world, there is always an element of contingency in policy. Recognising it explicitly is the way to provide confidence and protect credibility in a world whose future no one can gauge with precision.

The writer is former US Treasury secretary and Charles W. Eliot university professor at Harvard.