Congressional negotiators have now completed action on a $700bn authorisation for the bail-out of the financial sector. This step was as necessary as the need for it was regrettable. There are hugely important tactical issues regarding the deployment of these funds that the authorities will need to consider in the weeks and months ahead if the chance of containing the damage is to be maximised. I expect to return to these issues once the legislation is passed.
In the meantime, it is necessary to consider the impact of the bail-out and the conditions necessitating it on federal budget policy. The idea seems to have taken hold in recent days that because of the unfortunate need to bail out the financial sector, the nation will have to scale back its aspirations in other areas such as healthcare, energy, education and tax relief. This is more wrong than right. We have here the unusual case where economic analysis actually suggests that dismal conclusions are unwarranted and the events of the last weeks suggest that for the near term, government should do more, not less.
First, note that there is a major difference between a $700bn (€479bn, £380bn) programme to support the financial sector and $700bn in new outlays. No one is contemplating that the $700bn will simply be given away. All of its proposed uses involve either purchasing assets, buying equity in financial institutions or making loans that earn interest. Just as a family that goes on a $500,000 vacation is $500,000 poorer but a family that buys a $500,000 home is only poorer if it overpays, the impact of the $700bn programme on the fiscal position depends on how it is deployed and how the economy performs.
The American experience with financial support programmes is somewhat encouraging. The Chrysler bail-out, President Bill Clinton’s emergency loans to Mexico, and the Depression-era support programmes for housing and financial sectors all ultimately made profits for taxpayers. While the savings and loan bail-out through the Resolution Trust Corporation was costly, this reflected enormous losses in excess of the capacity of federal deposit insurance programmes. The head of the FDIC has offered assurances that nothing similar will be necessary this time. It is impossible to predict the ultimate cost to the Treasury of the bail-out programme and of the other guarantee commitments that financial authorities have – this will depend primarily on the economy as well as the quality of execution and oversight. But it is very unlikely to approach $700bn and will be spread over a number of years.
Second, the usual concern about government budget deficits is that the need for government bonds to be held by investors will crowd out other, more productive, investments or force greater dependence on foreign suppliers of capital. To the extent that the government purchases assets such as mortgage-backed securities with increased issuance of government debt, there is no such effect.
Third, since Keynes we have recognised that it is appropriate to allow government deficits to rise as the economy turns down if there is also a commitment to reduce deficits in good times. After using the economic expansion of the 1990s to bring down government indebtedness, the US made a serious error in allowing deficits to rise over the last eight years. But it would be compounding this error to override what economists call “automatic stabilisers” by seeking to reduce deficits in the near term.
Indeed, in the current circumstances the case for fiscal stimulus – policy actions that increase short-term deficits – is stronger than at any time in my professional lifetime. Unemployment is now almost certain to increase – probably to the highest levels observed in a generation. Monetary policy has very little scope to stimulate the economy given how low policy rates already are and the problems in the financial system. And experience around the world with economic downturns caused by financial distress suggests that while they are of uncertain depth, they are almost always of long duration.
The economic point here can be made more straightforwardly. The more people who are unemployed the more desirable it is that government takes steps to put them back to work by investing in infrastructure, energy or simply through tax cuts that allow families to avoid cutting back on their spending.
Fourth, it must be emphasised that nothing in the short-run case for fiscal stimulus vitiates the argument that action is necessary to ensure the US is financially viable in the long run. We still must address issues of entitlements and fiscal sustainability.
From this perspective the worst possible actions in the current context would be steps that have relatively modest budget impacts in the short run but that cut taxes or increase spending by growing amounts over time. Examples would include new entitlement programmes or exploding tax measures. The best measures would be those that represent short-run investments that will pay back to the government over time or those that are packaged with longer-term actions to improve the budget. Examples would include investments in healthcare restructuring or steps to enable states and localities to accelerate, or at least not slow down, their investments.
A time when confidence is lagging in the household, financial and business sectors is not a time for government to step back. Well-designed policies are essential to support the economy and given the seriousness of healthcare, energy, education and inequality issues, can make a longer-term contribution as well.
The writer is the Charles W. Eliot professor at Harvard University and managing director of D.E. Shaw & Co
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.