Thursday, October 1, 2009

Barro & Redlick: Our new research shows no evidence of a Keynesian 'multiplier' effect. There is evidence that tax cuts boost growth

Stimulus Spending Doesn't Work. By ROBERT J. BARRO AND CHARLES J. REDLICK
Our new research shows no evidence of a Keynesian 'multiplier' effect. There is evidence that tax cuts boost growth.
The Wall Street Journal, Oct 01, 2009

The global recession and financial crisis have refocused attention on government stimulus packages. These packages typically emphasize spending, predicated on the view that the expenditure "multipliers" are greater than one—so that gross domestic product expands by more than government spending itself. Stimulus packages typically also feature tax reductions, designed partly to boost consumer demand (by raising disposable income) and partly to stimulate work effort, production and investment (by lowering rates).

The existing empirical evidence on the response of real gross domestic product to added government spending and tax changes is thin. In ongoing research, we use long-term U.S. macroeconomic data to contribute to the evidence. The results mostly favor tax rate reductions over increases in government spending as a means to increase GDP.

For defense spending, the principal long-run variations reflect the buildups and aftermaths of major wars—World War I, World War II, the Korean War and, to a much lesser extent, the Vietnam War. World War II tends to dominate, with the ratio of added defense spending to GDP reaching 26% in 1942 and 17% in 1943, and then falling to -26% in 1946.

Wartime spending is helpful for estimating spending multipliers for three key reasons. First, the variations in spending are large and include positive and negative values. Second, since the main changes in military spending are independent of economic developments, it is straightforward to isolate the direction of causation between government spending and GDP. Third, unlike many other countries during the world wars, the U.S. suffered only moderate loss of life and did not experience massive destruction of physical capital. In addition, because the unemployment rate in 1940 exceeded 9% but then fell to 1% in 1944, there is some information on how the multiplier depends on the strength of the economy.

For annual data that start in 1939 or earlier (and, thereby, include World War II), the defense-spending multiplier that applies at the average unemployment rate of 5.6% is in a range of 0.6-0.7. A multiplier less than one means that, overall, other components of GDP fell when defense spending rose. Empirically, our research shows that most of the fall was in private investment, with personal consumer expenditure changing little.

Our research also shows that greater weakness in the economy raises the estimated multiplier: It increases by around 0.1 for each two percentage points by which the unemployment rate exceeds its long-run median of 5.6%. Thus the estimated multiplier reaches 1.0 when the unemployment rate gets to about 12%.

To evaluate typical fiscal-stimulus packages, however, nondefense government spending multipliers are more important. Estimating these multipliers convincingly from U.S. time series is problematical, however, because the movements in nondefense government purchases (dominated since the 1960s by state and local outlays) are closely intertwined with the business cycle. Thus the explanation for much of the positive association between nondefense spending and GDP is that government spending increased in response to growing GDP, rather than the reverse.

The effects of tax rates on GDP growth can be analyzed from a time series we've constructed on average marginal income-tax rates from federal and state income taxes and the Social Security payroll tax. Since 1950, the largest declines in the average marginal rate from the federal individual income tax occurred under Ronald Reagan (to 21.8% in 1988 from 25.9% in 1986 and to 25.6% in 1983 from 29.4% in 1981), George W. Bush (to 21.1% in 2003 from 24.7% in 2000), and Kennedy-Johnson (to 21.2% in 1965 from 24.7% in 1963). Tax rates rose particularly during the Korean War, the 1970s and the 1990s. The average marginal tax rate from Social Security (including payments from employees, employers and the self-employed) expanded to 10.8% in 1991 from 2.2% in 1971 and then remained reasonably stable.

For data that start in 1950, we estimate that a one-percentage-point cut in the average marginal tax rate raises the following year's GDP growth rate by around 0.6% per year. However, this effect is harder to pin down over longer periods that include the world wars and the Great Depression.

It would be useful to apply our U.S. analysis to long-term macroeconomic time series for other countries, but many of them experienced massive contractions of real GDP during the world wars, driven by the destruction of capital stocks and institutions and large losses of life. It is also unclear whether other countries have the necessary underlying information to construct measures of average marginal income-tax rates—the key variable for our analysis of tax effects in the U.S. data.

The bottom line is this: The available empirical evidence does not support the idea that spending multipliers typically exceed one, and thus spending stimulus programs will likely raise GDP by less than the increase in government spending. Defense-spending multipliers exceeding one likely apply only at very high unemployment rates, and nondefense multipliers are probably smaller. However, there is empirical support for the proposition that tax rate reductions will increase real GDP.

Mr. Barro is a professor of economics at Harvard. Mr. Redlick is a recent Harvard graduate. This op-ed is based on a working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research in September.

Protecting the Credit Raters - Washington moves to maintain the AAA cartel

Protecting the Credit Raters. WSJ Editorial
Washington moves to maintain the AAA cartel.
The Wall Street Journal, page A22, Oct 01, 2009

This morning we had hoped to be able to praise House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, who seemed ready to break up the credit ratings racket that did so much to inflame the financial panic. But just when you think Barney will free up competition, he reinforces the cartel.

The news came at yesterday's hearings into why the government-anointed credit-ratings agencies—Moody's, Standard and Poor's and Fitch—slapped their seals of approval on billions of dollars in dodgy assets during the credit mania. A former Moody's employee, Eric Kolchinsky, described a "reckless disregard for the truth" in an August memo to a Moody's official. Yesterday he testified that those responsible for ensuring sound ratings methodology are "routinely bullied" by management. Another former Moody's man, Scott McCreskey, testified about the company's failure to monitor the growing risks of municipal bonds. Moody's has generally denied the allegations but says it is investigating.

Yet despite the path of financial destruction paved by the Big Three raters, Washington still won't yank their privileged status as Nationally Recognized Statistical Ratings Organizations (NRSROs). Based on the draft reform written by Mr. Frank's colleague, Paul Kanjorski (D., Pa.), the raters can expect more compliance and legal costs, but no threat to their official role as America's judges of credit risk.

This bill arrives after Mr. Frank sent signals that the racket would be repealed. Appearing on CNBC in September, Mr. Frank said, "We have exalted rating agencies too much." He added, "We need to repeal laws that mandate the use of rating agencies."

While it's true that the Kanjorski draft calls for removing references to the favored agencies in federal law, most of the raters' power comes from rules, not laws. The the bill would end references in law within six months, but the rules stand. The bureaucrats at the Federal Reserve, SEC and elsewhere merely need to study the issue and report back to Congress. These are the same people who wrote the flawed rules, so why would they eliminate them?

It also says something about the mindset of Congressional Democrats that while whiffing on true reform for investors, they're planning to smack a home run for the trial lawyers. The draft contains all kinds of new potential liability for the credit raters, including a bizarre section on "joint liability" that makes one ratings agency liable for another's mistakes. You read that correctly. If S&P blows a call, investors could sue Moody's and Fitch too.

This suggests that the favored agencies may simply be consumed by piranhas in the trial bar. But by bleeding the NRSROs while leaving intact rules that require their services, Mr. Kanjorski could be creating a scenario in which regulators are soon calling S&P and Moody's too big to fail. This is essentially what Sarbanes-Oxley did for the accounting firms after Enron: In the name of punishing them, make them even more important.

Meanwhile, instead of breaking up the ratings club, the SEC has simply chosen to add new members. A new rule allows a few new additional favored firms, which are paid by investors, to get the same inside information that the Big Three, which are paid by bond issuers, have always enjoyed. So rich investors may now be able to pay extra for data never disclosed to average investors.

The best—and only genuine—ratings reform is also the simplest. Remove all references to NRSROs from rules as well as laws. Let markets decide which investments carry the most risk.

U.S. Credibility and Pakistan - What Islamabad thinks of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

U.S. Credibility and Pakistan. WSJ Editorial
What Islamabad thinks of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Wall Street Journal, page A22, Oct 01, 2009

Critics of the war in Afghanistan—inside and out of the Obama Administration—argue that we would be better off ensuring that nuclear-armed Pakistan will help us fight al Qaeda. As President Obama rethinks his Afghan strategy with his advisers in the coming days, he ought to listen to what the Pakistanis themselves think about that argument.

In an interview at the Journal's offices this week in New York, Pakistan Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi minced no words about the impact of a U.S. withdrawal before the Taliban is defeated. "This will be disastrous," he said. "You will lose credibility. . . . Who is going to trust you again?" As for Washington's latest public bout of ambivalence about the war, he added that "the fact that this is being debated—whether to stay or not stay—what sort of signal is that sending?"

Mr. Qureshi also sounded incredulous that the U.S. might walk away from a struggle in which it has already invested so much: "If you go in, why are you going out without getting the job done? Why did you send so many billion of dollars and lose so many lives? And why did we ally with you?" All fair questions, and all so far unanswered by the Obama Administration.

As for the consequences to Pakistan of an American withdrawal, the foreign minister noted that "we will be the immediate effectees of your policy." Among the effects he predicts are "more misery," "more suicide bombings," and a dramatic loss of confidence in the economy, presumably as investors fear that an emboldened Taliban, no longer pressed by coalition forces in Afghanistan, would soon turn its sights again on Islamabad.

Mr. Qureshi's arguments carry all the more weight now that Pakistan's army is waging an often bloody struggle to clear areas previously held by the Taliban and their allies. Pakistan has also furnished much of the crucial intelligence needed to kill top Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in U.S. drone strikes. But that kind of cooperation will be harder to come by if the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan and Islamabad feels obliged to protect itself in the near term by striking deals with various jihadist groups, as it has in the past.

Pakistanis have long viewed the U.S. through the lens of a relationship that has oscillated between periods of close cooperation—as during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s—and periods of tension and even sanctions—as after Pakistan's test of a nuclear device in 1998. Pakistan's democratic government has taken major risks to increase its assistance to the U.S. against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Mr. Qureshi is warning, in so many words, that a U.S. retreat from Afghanistan would make it far more difficult for Pakistan to help against al Qaeda.