Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Lowballing Estimates of Potential Output

Simon Wren Lewis notes one of the Cameron excuses for fiscal austerity:
As I noted in my previous post, the very big government budget deficit in 2010 was largely the result of the recession. That fact is difficult to square with the myth that the coalition government rescued the economy from an impending financial crisis, so it is important to push another explanation for the large deficit: that it reflected the profligacy of the previous government.
The Great Recession increased the deficits for a lot of nations including those that undertook the Herbert Hoover economics of fiscal austerity during a period of weak aggregate demand. Over 60 years ago, E. Cary Brown noted that an analyst needs to separate the automatic stabilizer effects on the actual deficit from changes in fiscal policy. This is often accomplished by examining the structural surplus (deficit). Simon also notes:
The only way you can sustain the myth that Labour was fiscally profligate is by suggesting that immediately before the recession the UK was experiencing a massive boom. In an economic boom tax receipts are high and spending on transfers low, so the budget should be in surplus. If it is in fact in significant deficit, that indicates serious fiscal laxity.
He continued with a criticism of how the IMF changed it estimate of the UK’s potential output, which we also noted. Simon’s latest continues the discussion:
The first point is to stop talking about GDP, and start talking about GDP per head ... As the chart shows, we have failed as yet to make up for any of the ground lost not just in the 2009 recession, but also ground lost as a result of fiscal austerity in 2010 and 2011 … So we have not really seen a recovery. Maybe the pessimists are right, and we will never recover any of that lost output, but still you do not call it a recovery. I can put it another way. Quarterly growth in GDP per head since the beginning of 2013 has averaged about 2% at an annual rate. That is below the average growth rate since 1955. A recovery from a deep recession would have growth rates well above the long term average … the prosperity of the average citizen in this country has hardly increased over the period of this coalition government - a result that is totally unprecedented since at least WWII. As recoveries from recessions go, this does not seem like a recovery worthy of the name. Yet we keep being told by mediamacro that the Coalition’s strong card is its economic record!
As we noted when we presented Bill Martin’s aggregate demand explanation versus the productivity pessimist story: Bill comes down on the latter explanation as does Paul and Simon. The former view is a Real Business Cycle tale of negative productivity shocks. We heard those stories 30 years ago but the US economy finally did fully recover. Let’s hope the same occurs for the UK economy. But let’s suppose for a moment that the productivity pessimists are correct. Then Cameron’s government should cease gloating how well the UK economy is doing as a permanent fall in real income per capita is not good news. Let me just add that if this productivity pessimism argument was valid, the expansionary monetary policy from the Bank of England should have been inflationary. But the record shows it was not. Paul Krugman adds a lot more but I found this part of interest:
Chart 3 shows estimates of our old friend the cyclically adjusted primary balance since 2009. I’ve included three sources – the IMF, the OECD, and Britain’s own Office of Budget Responsibility – just in case someone wants to argue that any one of these sources is biased. In fact, every one tells the same story: big spending cuts and a large tax rise between 2009 and 2011, not much change thereafter.
Paul’s chart 3 were drawn from three measures of the cyclically adjusted primary balance that assumed the UK output gap was severely negative in 2007 even if Paul noted why these measures were likely low balling potential GDP. Of course, fiscal impact is about the change in fiscal policy but leave the UK for now. We are having a few debates about U.S. monetary policy and inflation that revolve around low ball estimates of potential GDP. Our two graphs show how I would estimate the output gap for two 7 year periods, which is by using the CBO estimate of potential GDP. John Taylor has been at this argument for way too long:
the Fed has returned to its discretionary, unpredictable ways, and the results are not good. Starting in 2003-05, it held interest rates too low for too long and thereby encouraged excessive risk-taking and the housing boom.
There have been a lot of effective rebuttals to this claim. Our first graph suggests that we did not see the output gap disappear until the end of 2005 and the period of excessive demand was very short lived and was already being offset by the FED’s increase in interest rates. Yet we see this canard:
There are multiple measures of the output gap that show the U.S. economy overheating during this time. Below is a figure from this article that compares the real-time and final measures of the U.S. output gap. Everyone shows ex-post an overheating economy during the housing boom.
David Beckworth had earlier argued we were witnesses a series of positive productivity shocks and yet he wants to argue the CBO overestimated potential output. Something does not add up. Our second graph relates to something from perhaps the last honest supply-sider - Bruce Bartlett:
In this article, the author reviews the continuing controversy over the Reagan tax cut. Republicans often assert that it was so expansionary that there was no revenue loss, something the Reagan administration itself never claimed. The truth is that the tax cut lost a lot of revenue, but helped the economy transition from high inflation to low inflation at an unexpectedly low economic cost.
Paul Krugman rightfully points to the first part of this as evidence that the three stooges (Lawrence Kudlow, Art Laffer, and Stephen Moore) misrepresent the 1980’s record but I would question Bruce’s claim that the economic cost of the disinflation was low. In fact Paul noted that the cost was expected:
Keynesians came into the Volcker disinflation — yes, it was mainly the Fed’s doing, not Reagan’s — with a standard, indeed textbook, model of what should happen. And events matched their expectations almost precisely.
Using the CBO measure of potential GDP during the 1980’s, the Volcker disinflation involved what Paul calls a PLOG – a prolonged large output gap.

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