Larry Summers’ blog

How to actually help Puerto Rico

04/26/2018

Desmond Lachman, Brad Setser and Antonio Weiss have written a strong analysis of the Puerto Rico situation. If ever there was a disconnect between underlying reality and what is happening in financial markets, it is the boom in Puerto Rican debt which has nearly doubled the value of some of its debt securities over the last few months. continue

No, “Obamasclerosis” wasnt a real problem for the economy

02/28/2018

The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip, reviewing the Trump administration’s first Council of Economic Advisers report, finds credible its claims that President Barack Obama’s policies, particularly in his second term, materially slowed economic growth, even though Ip acknowledges that the CEA’s assertions regarding magnitudes are likely exaggerated.

The CEA’s thesis is that a wave of tax and regulatory policies reduced both workers’ incentives to work and businesses’ incentives to invest, leading to slower economic growth than would otherwise have been achievable.

I am sympathetic to arguments of this type, having often observed that “business confidence is the cheapest form of stimulus.” And I would be the last to argue that every regulatory intervention of the late Obama years was salutary. I would also note that much of what the Obama administration proposed (for example, more infrastructure spending and responsible tax reform) would have triggered even greater economic growth but never came to pass, largely due to congressional roadblocks. There was certainly more that could have been done.

But at least three broad features of the economic landscape make the CEA’s view an unlikely explanation for disappointing economic growth.

First, the dominant reason for slow growth has been what economists label slow “total factor productivity” (TFP) growth. That is, the problem has not primarily been a shortage of capital and labor inputs into production, but rather slow growth in output, given inputs. After growing at about 1 ¾ percent per year between 1996 and 2004, the TFP growth rate has dropped by half since 2005.

While TFP has fallen off rapidly, there is no basis for supposing that levels of labor input or capital are less than one would expect given the magnitude of the Great Financial Crisis. In fact, labor force participation rates in 2016 lined up closely with Federal Reserve researchers’ 2006 predictions. This suggests the lack of importance of the various factors adduced by the CEA’s report.

Second, perhaps the biggest surprise of the last few years has been the remarkably low rate of inflation even as the unemployment rate has reached 4 percent. Year after year, consensus and Federal Reserve Board forecasts of inflation have fallen short of predictions. If, as the CEA believes, our slow economic growth is a result of too little supply of labor and capital, one would expect surprisingly high, rather than surprisingly low, inflation as demand growth collided with constricted supply. This is the opposite of what we observe. On the other hand, the secular stagnation hypothesis that emphasizes issues on the demand side would predict exactly the combination of sluggish growth, low inflation and low capital costs that we observe.

Third, the essential idea behind the CEA’s thesis is that capital has been greatly burdened in recent years by onerous regulation, high taxes and a lack of availability of labor. This idea is belied by the behavior of the stock market and of corporate profits. Over the course of Obama’s second term, corporate profits increased by nearly 20 percent, and the S&P 500 grew by more than 50 percent. This hardly suggests a period of excessively increasing burdens on capital.

The observation that share buybacks appear to be the largest use of the proceeds from the Trump tax cuts points in the same direction. Costs of capital have not been responsible for holding back investment in the United States in recent years.

If the “Obamasclerosis” theory does not fit the facts of slow growth in recent years, what are its likely causes? This will remain a matter for active research. But my guess is that key elements include hysteresis effects from the financial crisis and associated recession, reduced application of innovation in the economy in recent years, and possibly the adverse effects of rising monopoly power and diminishing competition in a range of markets.

Bill McDonough in memoriam

01/30/2018

William “Bill” McDonough was my friend. We met in January 1993 when I took up my new position leading international affairs at the Treasury Department, and Bill was preparing to become president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. For the next eight years we probably spoke twice a week and much more frequently in times of crisis. I learned more from Bill than I was ever able to express to him.

In some ways, Bill was from central casting’s traditional idea of a central banker, and he acted the part. I never saw him in public and in doubt. In other ways, he was a very different from the typical central banker.

  • Most prefer to read a data table than a face. Not Bill. He knew how important relationships were when the chips were down and invested in them every day.
  • Most see the world in terms of global generalities. Bill cared about national particularities from native languages, to local rules, to culture. It made him a uniquely trusted figure, especially in Latin America but also around the world.
  • Most are stern and serious. I always picture Bill with a smile on his face as he explained to me what you had to grab to get hearts and minds to follow. He took what he did plenty seriously but he never took himself too seriously.
  • Most are pragmatists. Bill was too, but he was also a moralist. He knew that he lived a lucky life and he never forgot his good fortune. And he never let his friends forget that they too were, for the most part, highly fortunate and had obligations to those whose luck had been less good.

History alters perspectives. Some of Bill’s most important policy thrusts look more clearly right today than they did at the time. Bill was on to what we delicately call agency issues in finance before it was fashionable, as he warned about compensation practices. He was prescient on issues of systemic risk and capital adequacy. And his handling of Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund, presaged contemporary discussions of orderly workouts in important respects.

Gerry Corrigan had a worthy successor and Tim Geithner had a worthy predecessor in William McDonough.

I treasured Bill’s humor, wisdom and loyalty in equal measure. In those years of the Mexican financial crisis, the Asian financial crisis, a struggling Japan, and an ultimately defaulting Russia, Bill’s earthy, forceful warmth was a wonderful counterpart to the more abstract and analytical Greenspan in the conduct of financial diplomacy. Millions who never knew his name lived better more secure lives because of what he did.

May he rest in peace.

 

Why Treasury Secretaries should stick with the strong dollar mantra

01/25/2018

Yesterday in Davos, Secretary Mnuchin left the impression that he might be reversing 25 years of US Treasury strong dollar policy by asserting that, “Obviously a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities.”  The dollar then had its biggest one day decline in nearly a year and bond yields rose.  Commerce Secretary Ross later joined the fray claiming that the US strong dollar policy was unchanged but this did not affect markets. continue

If we want to improve global health, we need to start taxing the things that are killing us

01/18/2018

The world is going through a huge health transition, where the problems of the six billion people who live in emerging markets are increasingly the problems of the one billion people who live in rich countries. For the first time in history, more people suffer from eating too many calories than too few. Improving global health is no longer primarily about combating infectious diseases. continue

We are even more convinced that thousands will die prematurely if the ACA is repealed

12/12/2017

On Monday, The Washington Post published an article by Casey Mulligan and Tomas Philipson attacking Lawrence Summers’s statement that “thousands” of individuals would die if the Republican tax bill became law. Summers reached his estimate after carefully reviewing the literature and consulting with health economists Jonathan Gruber and Mulligan and Philipson’s University of Chicago colleague Dean Kate Baicker, who has published a number of influential studies on the effect of health insurance on health. continue

Susan Collins is wrong to say that the tax cuts will pay for themselves, despite the economists she cites

12/05/2017
Senator Susan Collins speaking on “Meet the Press” defended her vote on the Senate GOP tax bill based on the claims of the signatories to the nine economists’ letter that we have criticized over the last week. The Maine Republican explained: “If you take the CBO’s formula and apply it, just four-tenths of one percent increase in the GDP generates revenues of a trillion dollars. … So I think if we can stimulate the economy, create more jobs, that does generate more revenue.”

continue

Thousands would die as a consequence of the GOP tax bill

12/04/2017

I suggested on Friday when it became clear that the tax bill would pass that “thousands would die.” In light of my sharp criticisms of other economists claims regarding the tax bill, some have asked whether my statement is well grounded.  I believe so, but this should be open to debate.

In reaching my judgement I relied primarily on work by Kate Baicker, a former colleague now serving as Dean of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.  Baicker served at the CEA during a Republican administration, so I judged that any political bias would operate against the conclusions I drew. continue

Dear Colleagues: You responded, but we have more questions about your tax-cut analysis

11/30/2017

Dear colleagues:

We appreciate that in response to our questions you clarified a number of points in your letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and, in particular, that you are backing off the statement in your original letter that “the gain in the long-run level of GDP would be just over 3%, or 0.3% per year for a decade.” As you state in your response to us, “We did not offer claims about the speed of adjustment to a long-run result.”

The only three studies you explicitly called out in your original letter do, however, provide specific estimates of the speed of adjustment that would imply that a 3 percent increase in long-run output would increase the annual growth rate by a 0.1 to 0.2 percentage point a year for the next decade — rates of growth that would not come close to paying for the cost of the proposed tax cut.

continue

Dear colleagues, please explain your letter to Steven Mnuchin

11/28/2017

Dear Colleagues:

You recently wrote an open letter to Treasury Secretary Steven  Mnuchin quantifying the economic impact of tax reform. We are interested in and surprised by your analysis.  We share your commitment to the idea that well-designed tax reform can make the economy stronger and that careful economic analysis is essential. And we know that you all share our belief that such careful analysis is well served by discussion and debate of these issues that is at least as frank and vigorous as what we are all accustomed to in the average economics seminar. To that end, we think it would be useful to lay out some of the questions we have about your analysis:

continue

Trump’s version of capitalism looks a lot like revenge — and it endangers our democracy

11/28/2017
In response to the Carrier caper after the election last year, I decried the Trump administration’s preference for what I called ad hoc deal capitalism. I noted that the practice was characteristic of developing countries and earlier times in the United States and that it was much less conducive to prosperity and freedom than capitalism based on the predictable rule of law.
Until last month, there had been fewer cases of deal capitalism than I had feared. But in the last month, policy has taken an ugly turn toward the selective and ad hoc use of government power — not to reward political friends but to punish political adversaries. Government rewards encourage cronyism and rent-seeking and waste public resources. Targeting adversaries may chill dissent and threaten democracy.

continue

Revisiting Harvard and the American Dream

11/10/2017

Like many others, we have closely followed and admired the important work of a former Harvard colleague, Raj Chetty. With access to millions of anonymous tax records, Raj and his team at the Equality of Opportunity Project have powerfully confirmed what many have long feared about declining upward mobility in America. continue

What I do support in a new tax plan

10/26/2017

I have been very sharply critical of what I regard as unprofessional exaggeration by advocates of the Trump tax proposal. Reasonably enough, people have asked what I am for.

I strongly support tax reform in general and especially corporate tax reform on the model of the highly successful bipartisan 1986 tax reform, which achieved very large rate reductions, spurred economic growth and improved the efficiency of the economy while being revenue and distribution neutral.

continue

The Business Roundtable’s outlandish tax cut claims

10/24/2017

I think of myself as pro-business.  I frequently counselled the Obama Administration that “business confidence is the cheapest form of stimulus” and during my times in government have found meetings with business leaders very helpful in understanding economic policy challenges.  So when the Business Roundtable (BRT) does an analysis I pay close attention.

Last Thursday I read on the Politico website a JPMorgan ad linking to the BRT site where there was a statement that “a competitive 20 percent corporate tax rate could increase wages sufficient to support 2 million new jobs”.  The claim surprised me because 2 million new jobs, on top of current projected job growth, would likely drive the unemployment rate below 3 percent—a level not seen in a half century and would be inconsistent with the claims of BRT Chairman Jamie Dimon that businesses can’t now fill all their job vacancies.  continue

One last time on who benefits from corporate tax cuts

10/22/2017

recently asserted that Kevin Hassett deserved a failing grade for his “analysis” projecting that the Trump administration proposal to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent would raise the wages of an average American family between $4,000 to $9,000. I chose harsh language because Hassett had, for what seemed like political reasons, impugned the integrity of people like Len Burman and Gene Steuerle who have devoted their lives to honest rigorous evaluation of tax measures by calling their work “scientifically indefensible” and “fiction.” Since there have been a variety of comments on the economics of corporate tax reduction, some further discussion seems warranted.

The analysis from Hassett, chief of the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), relies heavily on correlations between corporate tax rates and wages in other countries to argue that a cut in the corporate tax rate would boost returns to labor very substantially. Perhaps unintentionally, the CEA ignores our own historical experience in their analysis. As Frank Lysy noted, the corporate tax cuts of the late 1980s did not result in increased real wages. Actually, real wages fell. The same is true in the United Kingdom, as highlighted by Kimberly Clausing and Edward Kleinbard. These examples feel far more relevant to the corporate tax issue analysis than comparisons to small economies and tax havens like Ireland and Switzerland upon which the CEA relies.

There has been a lot of back and forth, but notably no one has defended the $4,000 claim as a “very conservatively estimated lower bound,” let alone endorsed the plausibility of the $9,000 claim. In fact, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page published two very optimistic versions of what the wage increase could be, which were below CEA’s lower bound.

Casey Mulligan and Greg Mankiw also do not defend CEA’s numbers, but do make use of simple academic abstract models that do not capture the complexities of a policy situation to argue that wage increases could be larger than the tax cut. The inadequacy of their analyses illustrate why well-resourced, team-based institutions with a strong culture of attention to detail like the Congressional Budget Office, the GAO, the Joint Tax Committee Staff or the Tax Policy Center are so important.

Mankiw’s blog is a fine bit of economic pedagogy. It asks students to gauge the impact of a corporate rate reduction on wages in a so called “Ramsey” model or equivalently in a small fully open economy, with perfect capital mobility. Even with these assumptions, he does not get answers in the range of the CEA’s estimates.

As a device for motivating students to learn how to manipulate oversimplified academic models, Mankiw’s blog is terrific as one would expect from an outstanding economist and one of the leading textbook authors of his generation. As a guide to the effects of the Trump administration’s tax cut, I do not think it is very helpful for three important reasons.

First, a cut in the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent in the presence of expensing of substantial or total investment has very little impact on the incentive to invest. Imagine the case of full expensing. If a company is permitted to deduct all of its investment costs and then is taxed on all of its investment profits, the tax rate has no impact at all on the investment incentive. If investments are financed in part with deductible interest, as would be true even under the Trump plan (where expensing would be total), a reduction in the corporate tax rate could easily reduce the incentive to invest.  Mankiw assumes implicitly that capital lasts forever and companies take no depreciation and engage in no debt finance.  This is not the world we live in.

Second, neither the Ramsey model nor the small open economy model is a reasonable approximation for the world we live in. In the Ramsey model, savings are infinitely elastic, so the real interest rate always returns to some fixed level. In fact, real interest rates vary vastly through space and time, and generations of economic research show that the savings rate rather than being infinitely sensitive to the interest rate is almost entirely insensitive to the interest rate.

The United States is not a small open economy. If it were, the effect of an effective investment incentive would be a major increase in the trade deficit as capital inflows forced an excess of imports over exports. I imagine that President Trump at least feels that a greatly augmented trade deficit is not good for American workers.

Third, a big cut in the corporate rate does not happen in isolation as a break for new investment.  Mankiw’s model does not recognize the possibility of monopoly profits or returns to intellectual capital or other ways in which a corporate tax cut benefits shareholders without encouraging investment. It means either increases in other taxes or enlarged deficits, both of which have adverse effects on households. It also means that capital moves out of the non-corporate sector into the corporate sector, tending to hurt workers in the non-corporate sector.

Mulligan accuses me of rejecting the results of my 1981 paper on Q Theory which he claims to like and teach. I’m flattered that he appreciates my paper, but am fairly confident he draws the wrong conclusions from it.

One central aspect of this paper was the recognition that the corporate tax rate is, contrary to Mulligan and Mankiw’s assumption, not a sufficient statistic for assessing the impact of the corporate tax system.  As I explained above, the paper emphasizes that to examine the impact of a corporate tax change, it is necessary to build in assumptions about depreciation allowances, debt finance and so forth, even if these are being held constant. If Mulligan did this, he would get a very different answer.

The main point of my paper, which Mulligan entirely ignores, was that because of slow adjustment costs, the impact of tax changes was felt primarily on asset prices for a long time. This meant that as my paper showed, the primary impact of a corporate tax cut would be to raise after-tax profits and the stock market. This in turn, as I noted, primarily benefits wealthy individuals. Note that because a corporate rate cut benefits investments already made, this conclusion does not depend on assumptions about depreciation allowances and the like which are important for new investment.

Mulligan also fails to recognize that a corporate rate cut benefits capital and hurts labor outside the corporate sector because it draws capital out of the noncorporate sector, raising its marginal productivity and reducing that of labor. It is true that if the corporate sector is small, this effect is small in terms of return, but by assumption it is large in total because it applies to a large quantity of capital and labor.

It is worth noting that Larry Kotlikoff and Jack Mintz’s response to criticisms of the Trump tax plan suffers from the same deficiencies as Mulligan’s. The authors include no corporate tax detail, no recognition of the impact of the tax proposal on asset prices, and no treatment of the budget consequences of tax cuts.

The newest boldest bit of claim inflation regarding the tax bill comes from the Business Roundtable: “a competitive 20 percent corporate tax rate could increase wages sufficient to support two million new jobs.” This would, coupled with job growth projected even in the absence of a corporate rate cut, take the unemployment rate well below 3 percent! I would be very interested to see the underlying analysis.  I would be surprised if it is convincing.

By far the highest quality assessment of corporate tax issues has been provided by Jane Gravelle, writing under the auspices of the Congressional Research Service.  It looks at all the literature. It recognizes that the issues are complex and cannot be captured by a single model or regression equation. It does not start with a point of view. Unfortunately it provides little support for claims that corporate rate cuts will raise revenue, help the middle class or spur rapid wage growth.

During my years in government, I served with 7 CEA chairs — Martin Feldstein, Laura Tyson, Joe Stiglitz, Janet L. Yellen, Martin Baily, Christy Romer and Austan Goolsbee. I observed all of them fighting with political figures in their Administrations as they insisted that CEA analysis had to be of a kind that would be respected and validated by outside economists. They refused to cheerlead for Administration policies at the expense of their professional credibility. I cannot imagine any of them releasing an estimate as far from the professional mainstream as $4000 to $9000 wage increase from a corporate rate cut claim. Chairman Hassett should for the sake of his own credibility, that of the Administration he serves and the institution he leads, back off.

 

Hassett’s flawed analysis of Trump tax plan

10/17/2017

Kevin Hassett accuses me of an ad-hominem attack against his economic analysis of the Trump Administration’s tax plan.  I am proudly guilty of asserting that it is some combination of dishonest, incompetent and absurd.  TV does not provide space to spell out the reasons why, so I am happy to provide them here.

I believe strongly in civility in public policy debates, and prior to the Trump administration do not believe I have ever used words like dishonest in disagreeing with the policy analyses of other economists.  Part of my rationale for speaking so strongly here is that Kevin called into question the integrity of the Tax Policy Center, a group staffed by highly respected former civil servants, by calling their work “scientifically indefensible” and “fiction”. continue

Corporations would surely benefit from a Trump tax cut — but probably at their workers’ expense

10/13/2017
October 13, 2017
I did an interview with Sara Eisen and Scott Wapner on CNBC on Thursday afternoon. During the interview Scott challenged my criticisms of the Trump administration’s tax cut and asserted that such a cut would be sound policy for the economy by noting that Jamie Dimon is in favor of it. Scott noted that the JP Morgan chairman and chief executive recently said, “I would hire more workers if Trump’s tax reform passes,” and Scott used that quote as evidence that the Trump administration is justified in claiming a corporate tax cut would benefit workers.

Trump could help Puerto Rico with the stroke of a pen. Why hasn’t he?

09/28/2017

My modestly-informed guess is that Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico will appear in history textbooks right next to Katrina and New Orleans. Puerto Rico’s unique territorial status and institutional constraints make the federal government’s response very difficult. And as I shall suggest in a subsequent post, the hurricane has greatly exacerbated Puerto Rico’s profound debt burden and development challenges. Yet one has to wonder why we are fanning the flames.

continue

Opportunity for Republican Senators to be 21st century Profiles in Courage

09/21/2017

There is an opportunity for 1 or 2 Republican Senators to be 21st century Profiles in Courage.  A Senator who stands up to his or her party and casts the decisive vote against the Cassidy Graham health legislation will be seen by history as a hero.

Cassidy Graham is the cruelest and most misguided piece of consequential legislation proposed so far in the 21st century.  It is far worse than the “repeal and replace” bills that Congress has so far voted down.  Cassidy Graham is much more dangerous than previous bills both because it goes further in eliminating critical parts of the ACA and because it savages the pre-ACA Medicaid safety net.

continue

Why the US government can’t be downsized

09/12/2017

Speaking at an event organized by Robert Greenstein, the President of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, I argued last week that unless our values have changed profoundly in an antigovernment direction, the balance of pressures from economic change will lead to an expansion of the federal budget relative to GDP. This was also the conclusion of a paper released by Paul Van de Water of the Center. Excellent summaries were provided by Al Hunt and David Leonhardt.

continue