The fiscal cliff is not the end of the world

Today is supposed to be the end of the world – at least according to classic Mayan accounts (and Hollywood?). But so far we are still here and there are not really any signs that the world really is coming to an end today. However, judging from media reports the world might be coming to an end at least in economic terms as the feared “fiscal cliff” is drawing closer after U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner yesterday failed to get support for his so-called “plan B”.

The fear is that on January 1 we will get a massive US fiscal tightening unless a compromise to avoid it is reached. However, as I earlier have argued the fiscal cliff might not be as bad as it commonly is said to be. The fact is that no matter what US policy makers will have to tighten fiscal policy in the coming years as the size of the budget deficit clearly is unsustainable. Hence, it is just really a timing issue about when fiscal policy will have to be tightened. Fiscal tightening is unavoidable.

The Permanent Income Hypothesis and the Sumner Critique
– two reasons why the fiscal cliff is not the end of the world

Said in another way whether or not there is a compromise made on the fiscal cliff or not – this time around – it will have no impact on the average American’s Permanent Income. Hence, the average American will have to pay for the US budget deficit in some way or another today or tomorrow. There is really no way around it.

In his brilliant book “A Theory of the Consumption Function” Milton Friedman distinguished between permanent and transitory changes in income and he argued – contrary to the prevailing Keynesian dogma at the time – that only permanent changes in income would have an impact on private consumption.

This also means that if tax payers are given a tax break today, but are told that they will have to pay it all back in the form of higher taxes tomorrow then it will have no impact on private consumption today as the income increase is only transitory and will have no impact on the tax payers’ permanent income.

This would obviously also mean that if US tax rates are indeed increased in 2013 and that the revenue is used to reduce the US budget deficit then that will have no negative impact on the US tax payers’ permanent income as higher taxes today basically just mean that taxes will not have to be increased in the future.  This result of course is a variation of the so-called Ricardian Equivalence Theorem as formulated by Robert Barro in his classic article “Are government bonds net wealth?” from 1974.

Hence, if you believe in the fundamental truth of Friedman’s Permanent Income Hypothesis then you would expect the impact of a tax increase to cut the budget deficit and public debt to be much smaller than what the paleo-Keynesian textbook models would indicate.

One can of course debate whether the Permanent Income Hypothesis is correct or not and discuss especially the empirical validity of the Ricardian Equivalence Theorem (RET). Personally I am somewhat skeptical about assuming that RET will always hold.

However, on the other hand if the budget deficit is not reduced then sooner or later I certainly would expect some kind of RET style effect to kick in. That would naturally trigger consumers to cut spending on the expectation of higher taxes. The budget deficit will have to be cut – either through higher taxes or lower public spending – whether or not the fiscal cliff (if it happens).

I am not arguing that tax increases are good – certainly not. I think higher taxes have significantly negative supply side effects but I am very skeptical about the view that private consumption automatically will drop as much as the increase in taxes and even more skeptical that that would have an impact on aggregate demand (more on that below).

This discussion is similar to the discussion in a new paper by Matt Mitchell and Andrea Castillo. In their paper “What went wrong with the Bush tax cuts?” they discuss why the Bush tax cuts failed to spur growth.

I must admit I have not fully digested the paper yet (it just came out), but as I read it Mitchell and Castillo argue that the 2001 Bush tax cuts failed to have the intended economic impact primarily for two reasons. First, the tax cuts were announced to be temporary – and hence Milton Friedman would have told you that it would have no impact on permanent income and hence no impact on private consumption. Second, Mitchell and Castillo argue that since the tax cuts were not accompanied by similar budget cuts then consumers and investors would not expect the tax cuts to last – even if politicians had claimed they would.

I believe that if one argues that the Bush tax cuts failed to boost private consumption growth because of the reasons discussed above then you would have to think that there will be little impact on private consumption when the tax cuts expire. Again I am not talking about supply side effects, but the expected impact on private consumption and aggregate demand.

Aggregate demand is determined by monetary policy and not by fiscal policy

Even if the fiscal cliff would be a negative shock to private consumption and public spending it is certainly not given that that would lead to a drop in overall aggregate demand. As I have discussed in earlier posts if the central bank targets NGDP or inflation for that matter then the central bank tries to counteract any negative demand shock (for example a fiscal tightening) by a similarly sized monetary expansion.

Even if we assume that we are in a textbook style IS/LM world with sticky prices and where the money demand is interest rate sensitive the budget multiplier will be zero if the central bank follows a rule to stabilize aggregate demand/NGDP.

As I have shown in an earlier post the LM curve becomes vertical if the monetary policy rule targets a certain level of unemployment or aggregate demand. This is exactly what the Bernanke-Evans rule implies. Effectively that means that if the fiscal cliff were to push up unemployment then the Fed would simply step up quantitative easing to force back down unemployment again.

Obviously the Fed’s actual conduct of monetary policy is much less “automatic” and rule-following than I here imply, but it is pretty certain that a 3, 4 or 5% of GDP tightening of fiscal policy in the US would trigger a very strong counter-reaction from the Federal Reserve and I strongly believe that the Fed would be able to counteract any negative shock to aggregate demand by easing monetary policy. This of course is the so-called Sumner Critique.

The fiscal cliff is not going to be fun
…but it will certainly not be the end of the world

I am not arguing here that the fiscal cliff would be without problems. While the US certainly needs consolidation of public finances there are likely only small costs of postponing the fiscal adjustment and the uncertainty about the US tax code is certainly not good news from a supply side perspective. However, from a aggregate demand perspective I think there is much less reason to be worried than debate in the US would indicate.

Relax the world is not coming to an end…yet.

PS I admit that judging from the market action today we have to conclude that investors are likely not as relaxed about the fiscal cliff as I am. As a faithful Market Monetarist that leaves me with a bit of a dilemma – should I trust my own economic reasoning or should I trust the signals from the markets?

PPS this guy – my friend Martin – is well-prepared for an alien invasion (he is completely unprepared for the fiscal cliff)

MOH

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