Larry Summers’ blog

Who’s Afraid of Budget Deficits?


How Washington Should End Its Debt Obsession

By Jason Furman and Lawrence H. Summers

The United States’ annual budget deficit is set to reach nearly $1 trillion this year, more than four percent of GDP and up from $585 billion in 2016. As a result of the continuing shortfall, over the next decade, the national debt—the total amount owed by the U.S. government—is projected to balloon from its current level of 78 percent of GDP to 105 percent of GDP. Such huge amounts of debt are unprecedented for the United States during a time of economic prosperity. continue

Has economics failed us? Hardly


My friend Fareed Zakaria has celebrated his well-deserved recognition by Foreign Policy Magazine as one of the 10 most important foreign policy thinkers of the last decade by writing an essay entitled “The End of Economics,” doubting the relevance and utility of economics and economists.  Because Fareed is so thoughtful, and echoes arguments that are frequently made, he deserves a considered response. continue

Bringing accountability to powerful, unelected officials


It is often said that the chair of the Federal Reserve is the second most important person in Washington. I’m not sure the statement is exactly right, but that it is plausible is, in a sense, remarkable. Why should the second most important person in Washington not be elected by the people, or at least directly accountable to and subject to dismissal by elected officials? The president cannot fire members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and for the past quarter-century it has been taboo for the president or his economic team to so much as comment on the Fed’s activities. continue

The financial crisis and the foundations for macroeconomics


A, if not the, preoccupation of macroeconomists for the last generation has been providing macroeconomics with a microeconomic foundation. At one level this totally makes sense. How can one be against establishing foundations? And it makes sense to think that macroeconomic theories of fluctuations in investment, for example, should be rooted in theories of how individual businesses makes investment decisions. continue

Setting the Record Straight on Secular Stagnation


Joseph Stiglitz recently dismissed the relevance of secular stagnation to the American economy, and in the process attacked (without naming me) my work in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I am not a disinterested observer, but this is not the first time that I find Stiglitz’s policy commentary as weak as his academic theoretical work is strong.

Stiglitz echoes conservatives like John Taylor in suggesting that secular stagnation was a fatalistic doctrine invented to provide an excuse for poor economic performance during the Obama years. This is simply not right. The theory of secular stagnation, as advanced by Alvin Hansen and echoed by me, holds that, left to its own devices, the private economy may not find its way back to full employment following a sharp contraction, which makes public policy essential. I think this is what Stiglitz also believes, so I don’t understand his attacks.

In all of my accounts of secular stagnation, I stressed that it was an argument not for any type of fatalism, but rather for policies to promote demand, especially through fiscal expansion. In 2012, Brad Delong and I argued that fiscal expansion would likely pay for itself. I also highlighted the role of rising inequality in increasing saving and the role of structural changes toward the demassification of the economy in reducing demand.

What about the policy record? Stiglitz condemns the Obama administration’s failure to implement a larger fiscal stimulus policy and suggests that this reflects a failure of economic understanding. He was a signatory to a November 19, 2008 letter also signed by noted progressives James K. Galbraith, Dean Baker, and Larry Mishel calling for a stimulus of $300-$400 billion – less than half of what the Obama administration proposed. So matters were less clear in prospect than in retrospect.

We on the Obama economic team believed that a stimulus of at least $800 billion – and likely more – was desirable, given the gravity of the economic situation. We were told by those on the new president’s political team to generate as much validation as possible for a large stimulus because big numbers approaching $1 trillion would generate “sticker shock” in the political system. So we worked to encourage a variety of economists, including Stiglitz, to offer larger estimates of what was appropriate, as reflected in the briefing memo I prepared for Obama.

Despite the incoming president’s popularity and an all-out political effort, the Recovery Act passed in Congress by the thinnest of margins, with doubts about its ultimate passage linger until the last moment. I cannot see the basis for the argument that a substantially larger fiscal stimulus was feasible. And the effort to seek a much larger one certainly would have meant more delay at a time when the economy was collapsing – and could have led to the defeat of fiscal expansion.

While I wish the political climate had been different, I think Obama made the right choices in approaching fiscal stimulus. It is of course also regrettable that after the initial Recovery Act, Congress refused to support a variety of Obama’s proposals for infrastructure and targeted tax credits.

Unrelated to the topic of secular stagnation, Stiglitz takes a swipe at me by saying that Obama turned to “the same individuals bearing culpability for the under-regulation of the economy in its pre-crisis days” and expected them “to fix what they had helped break.” I find this a bit rich. Under the auspices of the government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) Fannie Mae, Stiglitz published a paper in 2002 arguing that the chance that the mortgage lender’s capital would be depleted was less than one in 500,000, and in 2009 he called for nationalization of the US banking system. So I would expect Stiglitz to be well aware that hindsight is clearer than foresight.

What about the Clinton administration record on financial regulation? With hindsight, it clearly would have been better if we had foreseen the need for legislation like the 2010 Dodd-Frank reforms and had a way to enact it with a Republican-controlled Congress. Certainly we did not foresee the financial crisis that came eight years after we left office. Nor did we anticipate the ways in which credit default swaps would mushroom after 2000. We did, however, advocate for GSE reform and for measures to rein in predatory lending, which, if enacted by Congress, would have done much to forestall the accumulation of risks before 2008.

I have not seen a convincing causal argument linking the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the financial crisis. The observation that most of the institutions involved – Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, the GSE Freddie Mac, AIG, WaMu, and Wachovia – were not covered by Glass-Steagall calls into question its centrality.

Yes, Citi and Bank of America were centrally involved, but the activities that generated major losses were fully permissible under Glass-Steagall. And, in important respects, the repeal of Glass-Steagall actually enabled the resolution of the crisis, by permitting the merger of Bear and Merrill Lynch and by allowing the US Federal Reserve to open its discount window for Morgan Stanley and Goldman when they otherwise could have been sources of systemic risk.

The other principal attack on the Clinton administration’s record targets the deregulation of derivatives in 2000. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish we had not supported this legislation. But, given the extreme deregulatory approach of President George W. Bush’s administration, it defies belief to suggest that it would have created major new rules regarding derivatives but for the 2000 act; so I am not sure how consequential our decisions were. It is also important to recall that we pursued the 2000 legislation not because we wanted to deregulate for its own sake, but rather to remove what the career lawyers at the US Treasury, the Fed, and the Securities and Exchange Commission saw as systemic risk arising from legal uncertainty surrounding derivatives contracts.

More important than litigating the past is thinking about the future. Even if we disagree about past political judgements and about the use of the term “secular stagnation,” I am glad that an eminent theorist like Stiglitz agrees with what I intended to emphasize in resurrecting that theory: We cannot rely on interest-rate policies to ensure full employment. We must think hard about fiscal policies and structural measures to support sustained and adequate aggregate demand.

In Memoriam Dick Spangler


My friend Dick Spangler died this week. He was a great supporter of Harvard and a very good friend to me. I feel his loss in a profound way.

I met Dick when he was a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers and I became President. In a group of distinguished people, Dick was a towering figure. He contributed more to Harvard than anyone else;  he had more experience as a higher education leader than anyone else; he worked harder than anyone else reaching out often to people a third of his age. He was wise, pithy and clear in all his statements.

Dick was a very good friend to me. During my time as Harvard president he taught me much about treating people right, about fundraising, about setting priorities and about leadership. I’d have been better off if I had followed more of his advice.

Knowing Dick, I was not surprised to learn from his obituary that he had been a hero for civil rights, civility and public schooling in North Carolina. He was a business leader who understood (as many do not) business’ dependence on the broader society.

In the last long decade I saw Dick only every couple of years. He would drop by my office when he was visiting Harvard. He would always insist on waiting while I finished up a conversation with a stray sophomore. Then we would talk about Harvard, politics and family. As I became more involved in the business world, he gave me some of the best advice I have ever received.

Dick Spangler may be gone but his influence will endure through the many people he made better. I am proud to have been his friend.

How to actually help Puerto Rico


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


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.

In memoriam Bill McDonough


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


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


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


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

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.”


Thousands would die as a consequence of the GOP tax bill


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


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.


Dear colleagues, please explain your letter to Steven Mnuchin


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:


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

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.


Revisiting Harvard and the American Dream


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


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.


The Business Roundtable’s outlandish tax cut claims


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